Progressive reflections on the lectionary #10

Mark 16: 1-8 Easter Sunday

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #10

The major Christian festivals have various things in common, one of them is that they are based on stories which seem to stretch credulity.

“Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said. 'One can't believe impossible things.'

I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast…” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland).

But even for those who happily write off the incredible events related in the ‘birth of a hero’ nativity stories, the question of ‘what happened?’ in the Easter stories can be a more difficult bridge to cross. Once you have chosen a gospel story (there are some contradictory details to take into consideration) then ultimately you are left with the question: “what happened at the tomb?”

Mark’s account is straightforward and less adorned than Matthew’s. The women go to the tomb, they wonder who will open it for them, but when they arrive it’s already opened.

They venture to the entrance, and there’s a “young man” there dressed in a white robe. The women are, naturally, ‘alarmed’.

The young man/youth (the word also means ‘attendant’) tries to set them at ease, ‘he has been raised’ he encourages them. The word used there is one which is mainly used in accounts of dead people being brought ‘back to life’. (In some places ‘raised’ relates to people who get better from something that was wrong, like when Peter’s mother was healed from a fever in Matthew chapter 8.)

The young man then tells the women that they should tell his disciples, and Peter, that the ‘raised’ Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him.

So what do we do with this passage? I think part of the answer is that there are many ways to read, and understand it - and perhaps there always have been. By no means all the early Christians were necessarily believers in what’s now called a ‘bodily’ resurrection. This is partly because language, and thinking, about the nature of ‘reality’ has changed, hugely, over the intervening period.

Without the mindset of someone of the time, who believed in the eminent possibility of resurrection from the dead (for anyone) and understood the body to be composed of more than the physical ‘stuff’ of biological life, we can’t really hope to grasp what early writers or readers thought was going on.

I think another part of the answer is that in a sense a deep dive into the plausibility, or otherwise, of physical resurrection is an exercise in missing the point. As with the nativity stories the point is found in the ‘kind of story’ that is being told. This is a story about someone whom death could not hold, someone for whom the solidity of the grave was no obstacle. The ordinary rules do not apply.

This is the story of the ultimate triumph of the Messiah. Against all the obstacles, light triumphs over darkness. The weak truly are strong, the poor are rich: the mission to communicate this truth carries on. The ultimate shame of crucifixion is no obstacle to the work of the Messiah whose shame is his glory: he goes on ahead of his followers to Galilee where the work of redemption continues.

After this passage you can, in a sense, choose your own ending to the gospel, well, you can choose between two (so long as you’re not too concerned about canonicity). One (longer) ending offers an overview account of miraculous appearances and concludes with Jesus telling his followers they will be able to ‘take up serpents’ (an idea which, much later, gained a life of its own in Appalachia). Although this ending seems to have been written by a different author to the rest of the gospel, it was accepted as canonical. A shorter ending, which in the NRSV is given as the ‘intermediate’ ending, is found in some manuscripts and simply says that the women told the disciples the news and that Jesus himself “through them” sent forth his word.

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Image: Christ leaving the tomb, at the Oberammergau Passion Play, 1900. Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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