I drove by a church last week, a few days before Palm Sunday, and read their sign: CHRIST HAS RISEN!
Um, no. No he hasn’t. In the Christian calendar he hasn’t even died yet. But this is an all-too-common phenomenon in Christian Churches.
It was five years ago now. I had recently finished a few week stay in the ICU, more than two months in the hospital, and more than one conversation between my parents and doctors about whether I would pull through. Still, I had made it, and after several months of regular home nurse visits, fentanyl patches, dilaudid pills, and 12 hours a day on an IV for liquid and nutrition, I was stable but still far from recovered.
The Saturday before Easter was sunny and unseasonably but appropriately warm. My mother and I took a walk outside, over a mile, the furthest I had gone in nearly five months.
“Wouldn’t it be poetic,” I asked, “If suddenly this whole illness, everything that went wrong in the hospital, all made sense tomorrow on Easter?”
“Hunny,” my mom responded kindly, “I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on the pastor. Don’t you?”
The next day was seasonably and appropriately repetitious. I heard nothing new. The same Easter story that had been read for centuries on centuries was read again. I received no specialized message from the divine about my own pain and struggle. That morning, I realized that might be the point.
Jesus came to make resurrection mundane.
Something has gone awry in our culture when we begin to tell the Resurrection story from a narrative of “The Good Guy Wins.” We love seeing the good guys kick ass. We celebrate rugged heroes like Jack Bauer from the hit TV show 24, even when they kill. So steeped are we in what Walter Wink calls, “the myth of redemptive violence,” we have subsumed the Easter story into this framework.
In cultures where Christianity has become the dominant power, the resurrection of Jesus has been turned into the triumph of the victors. The way “Jesus is Risen” is proclaimed, it sounds like bragging — essentially one-upping those who disagree with us by saying smugly: we win. Easter is used as a trump card to threaten people into joining our side, because we are the side of the victors. Again and again, the church tries to grow by dominating: passing laws discriminating others, fighting legal battles in the courts, using money and clout to sway people into a certain ideology. Easter celebrations at megachurches get bigger and jazzier every year. We are like the disciples who just don’t get it. We argue and argue over which among us is the greatest.
We need to figure out how to tell a different story.
The end of the Gospel of Mark is, shall we say, indecisive. Mark’s account of the resurrection begins with the women going to anoint Jesus’ body and discovering the stone rolled away, Jesus’ body gone missing, and “a young man, dressed in a white robe” sitting in the tomb. This man tells them not to be alarmed, as if that’s possible under the circumstances, and announces that Jesus “has been raised.” The young man instructs them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Really? Our dead friend is arranging a meet-up via an angel-gram? I think I’d react the same way the women do in verse 8: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Here is the note that appears in my NRSV Bible at the end of verse 8, which is followed by one more verse, the so-called “shorter ending of Mark:”
Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book with the shorter ending; others include the shorter ending and then continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8, though in some of these authorities the passage is marked as being doubtful.
I’m doubtful, too, but not because no one seems to know how the Gospel writer wanted to end his Gospel. But because doubt seems to be the reaction du jour. In the longer ending, we find out that the women break their silence, but those who are “mourning and weeping” for Jesus “would not believe it.” Mark tells us Jesus appeared to “two of them, as they were walking in the country.” But when they “told the rest,” again “they did not believe them.” This is completely understandable because resurrection cannot be considered part of normal experience, no matter what century you are living in. And yet the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection want us to believe in the reality of it, that Jesus appeared to them and they could experience his dead-yet-aliveness, normal human beings though they were.