People flood churches on Easter because they know they are going to hear good news. But Easter is also terrifying news. According to Mark's Gospel, early on a Sunday morning Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome made their way to a tomb to anoint the dead body of Jesus. Mark also tells us that these women had earlier watched the crucifixion of Jesus "from a distance" (Mark 15:40). When it was all over, they saw Joseph of Arimathea pull the dead body off the cross, wrap it in a linen cloth, lay it in a tomb hewn out of a rock, and then roll the stone over the door of the tomb. They watched it all from a distance.
That is our favorite perspective on death—we do all we can to keep our distance from it. We try to stay healthy, work out, watch what we eat, and we're careful. So careful. It's all a way of keeping death at bay. But occasionally it catches up to someone you love, and then you know, like these women, that you have to go and see death up close.
Last September 11, it became painfully clear that death can always bridge the distance to find any of us. What crumbled on that dark day were not just skyscrapers, but also our illusions that we were somehow safe from the violence the rest of the world has known for a very long time. It doesn't matter how wealthy, well defended, or far removed we are from evil men. Terror can still find us. Every time I drive past the Pentagon and gaze at the gaping wound in its side, I'm reminded that not even powerful generals and admirals in a seemingly impenetrable fortress can keep death at a distance. What hope do the rest of us have?
In the aftermath of that dark day, many of our social commentators repeatedly said, "Everything has changed." It remains to be seen just how much we have changed beyond tolerating longer lines at the airports and pasting American flags onto our cars. Maybe the soul of the nation is changing as well. Maybe. But clearly one of the undeniable marks of being an American today is that we all miss the naïveté we enjoyed on September 10.
Pushing Against the Stone
The women who made their way to the tomb on the first Easter morning had been with Jesus since Galilee. Ah, Galilee. How far that delightful place must have seemed from this place of death. In Galilee, Jesus had been so full of life and was constantly restoring the lives of others. Before Mary Magdalene met him, her soul had been torn apart by seven demons. All of the women knew they were something less before meeting Jesus. This man was their Savior. But now he was dead.
Maybe as the women walked down the road toward the tomb, someone mentioned that the world has always been hard on saviors. Or like most people in deep grief, maybe they said nothing at all as they quietly closed the distance between themselves and the tomb of death. Their only dilemma, according to Mark, was how they would get that huge stone rolled back.
We also know about pushing against a huge stone. We have all been pushing against something for a long time. Maybe this Easter finds you pushing against a supervisor who is hard to satisfy or against the threat of being downsized from your job. Or maybe you are pushing against a marriage that seems destined for the ditch. Or you're pushing against a disease, depression, loneliness, or some obstacle that is between you and your dreams. Lately, we've all been pushing against the anxiety that terrorists will strike again. We think that if we can just get this burdensome thing rolled back, we'll be fine. But as the story goes, even if we get rid of the huge stone, all that is waiting on the other side is death.
This is one of the worst ironies of life. When we work so hard to save our lives, we are actually doing little more than anointing the dead. Even if we spend years achieving our dreams, all we have really done is close the distance between death and us. As Jesus kept trying to explain, those who try to save their lives will lose them. Eventually you will lose your job, your relationships, your health, and everything you are pushing to save.
The story always ends in loss. Every wonderful thing in life comes to an end. We know that. People never come to my office for pastoral counseling because they have doubts about death and loss. No one has trouble believing in death. That's why we push so hard. We want to get as much as we can out of our jobs, relationships, and health before we lose them.
So Easter is not some ancient story. We can all take our place beside those three women wondering what it will take to push against the stone. How much hard work, money, love, and sacrifice do our hopes and dreams require of us?
When the women arrived at the tomb, they were startled to discover that the stone was already rolled back. So they walked inside, where they saw an angel in white. And they became "alarmed" (Mark 16:4). The angel said, "Don't be alarmed." Angels always say that in the Bible. But how can it not be alarming to see a messenger from God? The women soon discovered, however, that the messenger wasn't nearly as alarming as the message.
"Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." Then, we are told, "the women fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them."
Beyond Bunnies and Chicks
This is the element of Easter that is so often missing from our celebrations. We think of Easter as a time for bunnies and little chicks, colorful eggs, and little girls in cute new dresses. But we ought to be thinking about grown women, with their dresses hiked up to their knees, running with terror out of a cemetery. Easter was not a happily-ever-after ending pasted onto the otherwise frightening ending of Jesus on the cross. The way Mark tells the story, it's Easter that is the frightening part of the story.
Along with Joseph of Arimathea, you and I had put Jesus into a tomb—wrapped, signed, sealed, and delivered. But when we get a good look into the tomb three days later, everything is unwrapped. Nothing is as we left it. Nothing is as it should be. Now, we cannot even count on death. Easter has changed the rules.
No wonder the women fled the tomb in fear. We may not care much for death, but we understand it. We know that it's impossible to ignore. It is what sets the agenda for the rest of life. That is why we push so hard at life—against aging, against diseases, against terrorists. We want to stay away from death as long as possible.
But if death is not waiting at the end, then everything in life has to change. We have to start over. We have to discover a whole new purpose for life.
According to Easter, the point of life isn't to collect as many things as possible before it is too late, or to hold your loved ones as tightly as possible before you have to give them back, or to waste your precious few years of life trying to postpone death. (Never confuse life with postponing death.) According to Easter, the point of life is to discover a death-defying hope.
You Can't Scare Dead People
Easter is not about renewal, new beginnings, the perseverance of the human spirit, or the first crocuses of spring. Long ago, I lost count of how many times I have stood in front of a congregation at a funeral. When I look out at the tear-stained faces of the brokenhearted family and friends of the deceased, do you think any of that sentimental drivel about springtime is going to help at all? No way. But how about if instead I quote an angel in asking, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"
Two things happen to people at funerals when the preacher speaks of the Resurrection. First, they are reminded of the hope for a future beyond their comprehension. The hope of heaven becomes more urgent to us after the passing of our loved ones.
Second, if they are really paying attention, they start to wonder about the life they are living right now. You cannot stare at a casket in a church without confronting some ultimate questions. You ask yourself, for example, if it really makes sense to push so hard at work. You ponder what will be said when someone is delivering your own eulogy, and then you wonder if it is still possible to change your life.
This is why it is such a profound opportunity to join the two Marys and Salome in staring right at the empty tomb of Christ—because then we can stare at our own tombs of loss and death without fear. Not only do the followers of Christ not dread death; we actually try to get it over with as soon as possible, which is how the church has always understood baptism.
When the church first began, it struggled through periods of persecution for 300 years. Every Sunday when the believers gathered, they took time to embrace and love each other because they did not know who might be martyred for the faith before their next gathering.
Why were so many so willing to lay down their lives for the confession that Jesus is Lord? Because when they were baptized, they were buried with Christ. They had already died to all of the old dreams for life. And you just can't scare dead people.
They died with Christ, however, only to be raised to a new life with him and in him—a new life that began the moment they passed through the water. Only in his death and resurrection is it possible for us also to die to the old agendas and rise to a changed life that is no longer crippled by fear.
A while back I was finishing up a premarital counseling session for a wonderful young couple. We were only a few weeks away from the wedding, and had already made all of the finishing touches on the service. As we came to the end of this last meeting, the groom-to-be blurted out, "I just have to say that I am so scared of this!" He suddenly had the undivided attention of his fiancée. He quickly added, "Oh no, honey, it isn't that I'm afraid of being married to you. I'm afraid of losing you. When my mother died, the grief was just overwhelming, and I love you even more. I just don't know how I can ever survive if something happens to you." Then he looked at me.
I could tell from his pleading eyes that he wanted me to reassure him that they were both young and healthy, and that he needn't worry about such things. But I couldn't say that, because I have buried too many young people. So I said, "In my experience, 100 percent of all marriages come to an end—some tragically through divorce or early death; others last for over 60 years. If your marriage is long and filled with intimacy, then when death comes, you're going to be even more in love than you are now. Then it will hurt even more to say goodbye when the time finally comes. And that's the best scenario you've got! So why do you want to go through marriage wondering if this is the day you'll lose your beloved? Give her up today. Get the grieving over with. Die to your right to have her, die to your fear of losing her, and die to the myth that you can keep her. Until you do, you'll be too afraid to enjoy her."
It wasn't what he wanted to hear, but on this side of Easter, it's the only thing a pastor can say. Because the terrifying truth of the Cross is that it's only in dying that we can finally live.
History's Greatest Catastrophe
The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has written about the creative possibility of "limit experiences." A limit experience is an experience that is beyond the limits of normal life. It's the one you spend most of your life avoiding and dreading, like death and separation. Beyond the limits of those things, we think there's nothing but emptiness, loss, and anomie. But as Ricoeur reminds us, there is more. There is also God, whose creative love knows no limits.
Watching enormous skyscrapers crumble into dust is beyond the limits of comprehension. It doesn't matter how many times we watched the video; it's still beyond comprehension. As is imagining how men can be so evil as to crash full airplanes into buildings—and understanding how thousands could so easily die on our own well-protected soil. And knowing that your mail could kill you if it happened to brush against anthrax spores before reaching your mailbox. It's all beyond our limits.
We dare not claim that God uses the crazed acts of terrorists as a judgment for our sins. No one can know that. But anyone can know that it is always the will of God that evil be redeemed and not given the last word. That is why God can always be found at work beyond the limits of evil's destructive powers, waiting to bring us back to new life.
The greatest catastrophe of history happened not on September 11, but 2,000 years ago when we crucified the Son of God. That was the ultimate experience beyond humanity's limit. But it was then that history was given the possibility of resurrection. When Jesus Christ defeated death, he did so that we may experience something beyond our limits—to rise with him into a new life. After every cross, resurrection remains a possibility. The stone that covers the tomb is rolled back, but it will be up to us to walk out of it as new creatures—or, in the case of September 11, a new nation. It all depends on the choices we make.
If our choices arise out of a new vision of service and justice, if we now commit ourselves to something greater than collecting more and more personal wealth, and if we unite around our leaders and stop whining about how small a piece of the American pie they are giving us, then we'll emerge from this tragedy as a nation ready to fulfill its calling on the Earth. But if our future choices arise out of fear, we might as well stay in the tomb. It all depends on the choices we make on the other side of death and loss.
Even the most conservative Bible scholars agree that in the original text, Mark's Gospel probably ended in the eighth verse of chapter 16, with a conversation between the angel and the women. But that seems so unfinished. He tells us nothing about the road to Emmaus, the struggle of Thomas to believe, or the tender conversation by the fire with Peter. And if verse eight is the end of the Gospel, then Mark hasn't given us any appearance of the risen Christ. That is probably why the church found it irresistible to add a couple of different endings that both include material found in the other Gospels.
But if Mark meant for his Gospel to end right here—with an empty tomb and an angel giving the women the terrifying news that Jesus is waiting for them back in Galilee—then he would have purposefully left the Easter story unfinished.
So how does the story get finished? It gets finished back in Galilee, where the women and the disciples lived. Back in the ordinary places, where you and I spend most of our time. Back where we work and live and make our home. The Easter story gets finished when ordinary people do the most extraordinary things with their lives, because they gave up pushing against stones and diseases, terrorists and fear.
The Easter story gets finished when the hungry are fed and the homeless are given shelter, when the sinner is forgiven and broken relationships are mended. The Easter story gets finished when the lonely are made part of a church family, when the sick and the prisoner are visited, and those in grief are comforted. It gets finished when parents find time to raise their children, when business people do what is right regardless of the cost, when leaders have the courage to lead people through their fears.
The Easter story gets finished every time someone comes to the realization that it is in giving life away that we find it.
This life—eternal life—can be found today. But it cannot be bought or earned. You can only receive it. And you will never be able to receive life if you are busy pushing your way into a tomb.
All across the world on Easter, in churches speaking every language under the sun, the frightening call will be issued to think again about the eternal purpose of our lives, to walk away from our private tombs, and to walk instead toward the hope of the risen Savior, Jesus Christ.
He is waiting for us, as the angel reported, in the ordinary places.
M. Craig Barnes is pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and the author of Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of Our Longings (Zondervan).
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Also appearing on our site today:
CrucifixionQuotations to stir the heart and mind at Easter.
Christian History Corner: Easter EloquenceThe holiday has inspired great words from some of history's greatest preachers.
Christianity Today International's Easter page has articles and reflections on the resurrection, the story of Easter, and more.
This article is based largely on Barnes's Easter sermon from two years ago, "Happily Ever After?" More of Barnes's sermons are available at National Prebyterian's Web site.
For more perspective on the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, see previous Christianity Today essays including:
I Was Just Wondering … Twenty questions that nag me after September 11. (Feb. 18, 2002)
Letter from a Muslim SeekerChristians aren't the only ones asking 'Why?' after September's tragedy. (Dec. 5, 2001)
Leaving 'Normal' BehindLife before September 11 seemed more secure, but do we really want it back? (Dec. 12, 2001)
Blame GameSeeking mercy is a better response to 9/11 than seeking meaning. (Nov. 8, 2001)
Blood, Sweat, and PrayersOne man's journal of ministry among New York City's firefighters and police officers at Ground Zero. (Nov. 8, 2001)
Rally Round the FlagAmerica may not be God's chosen nation, but it does have a mission that churches can support. (Nov. 7, 2001)
Wake-up CallIf September 11 was a divine warning, it's God's people who are being warned. (Nov. 5, 2001)
Where Was God on 9/11?Reflections from Ground Zero and beyond. (Oct. 23, 2001)
Prayer After 9.11.01The author of The Prayer of Jabez says now, more than ever, we need to seek God's power. (Sept. 28, 2001)
Judgment DayGod promised that calamity would follow disobedience. So why are we quick to dismiss it as a reason for the September 11 attacks? (Sept. 25, 2001)
Now What?A Christian response to religious terrorism. (Sept. 21, 2001)
To Embrace the EnemyIs reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (Sept. 21, 2001)
After the Grave in the AirTrue reconciliation comes not by ignoring justice nor by putting justice first, but by unconditional embrace. (Sept. 21, 2001)
Taking It PersonallyWhat do we do with all this anger? (Sept. 14, 2001)
A Wake-Up Call to Become Global ChristiansThe deadly attacks on America will provoke many responses, but Christians are commanded to love our neighbors. (Sept. 12, 2001)
When Sin ReignsAn event like this shows us what humans are capable of becoming—both as children of darkness and of light. (Sept. 13, 2001)
God's Message in the Language of EventsIn the face of evil, we must focus on keeping our hearts right. (Sept. 11, 2001)
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