Muted Easter, Viral Resurrection

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April 12, 2020

Muted Easter, Viral Resurrection

Passage: Mark 16:1–8

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Anyone who makes a person laugh
opens heaven to him.
Anyone who is patient with another
gives him a future.
Anyone who accepts a person
as he himself
is accepted by Christ
loosens his tongue for life’s hymn of praise.

Let us go out
from our customs and our habits
and learn to hope from the Bible.
Let us go out
and cross the frontiers
so that we may infect life with hope.
Let us ignore the barriers,
and look only to the One who breaks them down.
He is risen.
Jesus is risen indeed.
Blessed be the Lord for ever and ever.
—Jurgen Moltmann, b. 1926

Surely Mark’s resurrection story is the one we need to hear this Easter, right? Mark’s Easter is spare, small, modest, and quiet.

This is how Mark concludes: “The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End. Finis. Fade to black, roll the credits.

Listen to all those hard, dense, vivid words in that last verse: ‘fled,’ ‘terror,’ ‘amazement,’ ‘seized,’ ‘said nothing,’ and finally, most importantly, ‘afraid.’ The last word in Mark’s Easter story is ‘afraid.’

The other day in a Bible study, Katie Lancaster said, “You know, we always refer to the day before Easter as Silent Saturday, but in Mark’s Gospel, Easter Sunday is almost silent too.” Mark’s is a quiet Easter.

Almost immediately, Mark’s readers tried to rectify this deficiency. The first scribes making copies of Mark’s terse little novella for eventual inclusion in a new Christian book with three other Gospels and a few of Paul’s letters—monks scribbling away by candlelight in the monastery libraries of the second century, said to themselves: “Wait, what? This is it? What happened? The young man in the tomb tells the women, “Don’t be afraid. He’s not here. He is risen. Go to Galilee. You’ll see him there.” But then we don’t see him. He’s not dead, but that’s all we know. The young man tells us where he is, but not what he looks like, what he’s doing, or whom he’s meeting.

“What happened?” the monks ask themselves. “Are we missing a page? Did it get frayed off from the end of the scroll?

“Did Mark get a severe case of writer’s block near the end of his story, throw the manuscript into a drawer somewhere intending to finish it later, but then never got around to it?

“Did Mark have a heart attack mid-sentence and expire with an unfinished Gospel?

“Did Roman soldiers tap him on the shoulder while he was scratching away at his lean little Jesus biography, cuff him, read him his rights, and perp walk him to the county lockup? This is so wrong!”

And so those second-century stenographers fixed Mark’s mistake or filled up Mark’s omission with their own more fitting endings. One scrivener added a short ending, and another added a longer ending, but they’re both late and spurious; it wasn’t Mark who wrote them.

And none of the other three Evangelists liked Mark’s ending either. Mark’s is the earliest Gospel, of course, from around 65 A.D., about 30 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark’s Gospel open on their desk while they were writing their own Gospels, and John might have known about Mark too, but all three of them wrote wildly different endings to their respective Gospels.

So in Matthew on the first Easter there’s an earthquake so terrifying the soldiers guarding the tomb faint like dead men, and then Jesus really does show up and greets his friends.

In Luke, Jesus strolls the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus with two of his fans. I mean, right there in the flesh. He spends a whole day with two of his friends whose names we know. And then later in Luke’s story he blasts off like a rocket ship into the wild blue yonder to return to heaven.

In John, Jesus passes through locked doors like Patrick Swayze in Ghost and has a confab with ten of the disciples, and then another with Thomas who’d been absent from the first meeting. “Touch the wounds on my hands and feet, Thomas. See and believe.” Then in John Jesus has breakfast on the beach with Simon Peter, who gets a second chance.

I’m not saying all of that didn’t happen; I’m just pointing out that our earliest Gospel record of the resurrection chooses not to tell us about it.

In the other three Gospels, there is an absence—the empty tomb—and a presence—the Risen Christ. In Mark, there is only absence and near-silence. And for that reason, it’s the right Gospel for us to hear this Easter, right?  Precisely because Mark’s Easter is quiet and modest.

It’s very quiet here. There’s just the five of us—Jo, Katie, Susan, Joel, and I. We’re missing the choir, though thanks to Lisa and Joel and Alyssa and our splendid section leaders, we’re not lacking music. We’re missing that beloved brass ensemble we hear from every Easter. The sanctuary is empty and silent. You’re all hunkered down with those you love in your respective safe places. Probably going to be a more muted Easter dinner this afternoon, too, right? You won’t be at the club.

Maybe Mark’s hard, dense, sharp words make sense to us this Easter: terror, amazement, seized, fear, we don’t know what to say so we say nothing to anyone. We experience the absence of the empty tomb, but maybe the presence of the Risen Christ is more elusive this Easter.

But we don’t have nothing. We will have Easter. He is risen. He is risen indeed! Therefore, neither death nor virus will ever have the last word in God’s stunning world.

Our Easter will be quiet, but we can be agents of resurrection, you and I. I love that poem from Jürgen Moltmann, probably the world’s most brilliant living theologian:

Anyone who makes a person laugh
opens heaven to him.
Anyone who is patient with another
gives him a future.
Anyone who accepts a person
as he himself
is accepted by Christ
loosens his tongue for life’s hymn of praise.

Let us go out
and cross the frontiers
so that we may infect life with hope.[1]

You noticed the central metaphor of Dr. Moltmann’s poem, right? What Dr. Moltmann wants to say is that virus is not the only contagious thing in our world. Hope is contagious, resurrection is viral.

Anyone who makes us laugh, anyone who performs a gratuitous, unasked-for kindness, anyone who shows us undeserved forgiveness, anyone who risks her lungs to minister to the sick, these are agents of resurrection; they are infecting the world with hope and making resurrection viral.

Those women who showed up at Jesus’ vacant grave on that first Easter were surrounded by so much death, so many crucifixions. They were standing in a morgue, literally and figuratively.

We too are surrounded by so much death; 100,000 deaths worldwide, a fifth of them in the United States. But there are so many people working against death, trying to activate tiny resurrections in a funereal world.

A woman told this story somewhere: “Hi, my name is Katy Ward. I have been married to my husband Chris Ward for 50 years. He has had Alzheimer’s for 20 years, getting progressively worse. For the last four years he has been in a memory care center. He has not known me for a long time. I go visit him twice a day. So it was until the coronavirus thing came along.

“Now,” she says, “Now, I go to visit him twice a day. I stand outside his window, in the rain, in the snow, in the fog, and I wave my arms. I try to engage his eye; I try to get his attention. I do this because I dearly love this man.” Twice a day. Every day. Outside his window. He does not know who she is.[2]

There is a home for the disabled on Long Island. The residents have cerebral palsy or brain injury or severe autism; 37 of the 46 residents have the virus. The employees who care for them are still there. They make minimum wage. The Director of the center put up three large signs: Heroes Work Here.[3]

A flight attendant from Colorado Springs says, “The public sees us as dumb flight attendants. But we aren’t there to serve you Cokes. We have a lot of the same training as police officers, fire fighters, and nurses. We were the first to die on 9/11. We know how to evacuate a plane in 90 seconds. We do CPR. We fight fires. We watch out for sex trafficking.”

She says that most of the flight attendants in the class she trained with at the beginning of her airline career have taken leaves of absence. “But I love my job,” she says. “This is what I signed up for. I’m going to keep flying till the wheels fall off.”[4]

A pharmacist in Poughkeepsie says, “My biggest concern is that I am 68 years old, and I have a heart condition. But, you know, I took an oath when I became a pharmacist to provide service at any cost, so that is what I am going to do.”[5]

At a veterinary practice in Boston, no humans are allowed to enter the clinic. People drive their dogs and cats to the parking lot, phone in when they arrive, an assistant goes out to the car to get the animal, the people wait in the car. The vet tech returns the animal to the car after the treatment.

There’s one exception. If you are there to euthanize your pet, there is a room with a separate entrance. They turned it into The Goodbye Room. Only the veterinarian will join you, no other staff. Brian the Vet says, “We feel that saying goodbye is too important.”[6]

Whoever makes us laugh, whoever shows us an unmerited kindness, whoever shows us great grace even when we don’t deserve it, whoever stays at her post no matter what, whoever lets us bid farewell to our beloved animals, these people are infecting the world with hope, these people are triggering tiny, viral, contagious resurrections everywhere.

This is our Pearl Harbor. This is our 9/11. This is our Great Depression. Perhaps the world feels a little funereal just now. Still, in the midst of death, we are in life.

Do we not hear intimations of immortality, hints, guesses, gestures at resurrection? Have we ever been left alone? Is he not right there in the ether, as distant as the stars but as near as the air? Is he not risen? This week’s glistering, gleaming, glowing full moon; soon the cherry trees will shower our shoulders with a confetti of pink blossoms; soon the gathering green of the forests; the fragrant, fecund loam of the earth; a child’s laughter; a lover’s touch; a friend’s loyalty; a neighbor’s courtesy; a colleague’s helping hand; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

[1]Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 126.

[2]Modern Love Podcast, “In the Midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic, People Share Their Love Stories,” April 1, 2020.

[3]Danny Hakim, “Often Marginalized, and Especially Vulnerable,” The New York Times, April 9, 2020.

[4]Chelsey, as told to Maggie Jones, “Exposed.  Afraid. Determined.”  The New York Times Magazine, April 5, 2020.

[5]Tanveer Hussain, as told to Lovia Gyarkye, “Exposed. Afraid. Determined.” ibid.

[6]Brian Bourquin, as told to Sarah A. Topol, “Exposed. Afraid. Determined.” ibid.