Easter in the Time of Pandemic
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
“… for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
This is the ending of the oldest manuscripts of Mark. It is so abrupt and open ended compared to the other Gospels that it is almost as if a final page were missing from the text. Such an ending certainly doesn’t fit our usual celebration of the resurrection. It is so discontinuous that very soon after this version, we find ancient versions of Mark include a ‘shorter ending’ and others that include a ‘longer’ ending (verses 9-20). In either case, the ancient church felt the need to say more. It just doesn’t seem right to end our most important Christian story with terror, amazement and silence. Surely there should have been shock and surprise but we expect worshipful joy and adoration to follow—not silence.
But perhaps in this season of global pandemic, we can see how this ending makes sense. I’m not sure it will stick but I would argue that the pandemic has exposed us to a reality that we ‘know’ is true but which we mostly avoid. First, NO one is safe in a pandemic. We are all vulnerable. And second, we cannot help but see that we are all interconnected. We are one body. Each of our individual behaviors, even our unintentional ones, can have long lasting impact on our community. Our individual decisions make a difference. With our current knowledge, Covid-19 cannot be stopped unless the vast majority of us work together.
In real life, it usually requires something big for us to viscerally understand how vulnerable we are. Our vulnerability is physical and emotional. We hate it when we truly recognize how frail we are physically. In war time, there is the saying: “There are no atheist in foxholes.” When the threat is immanent, we call for help. Likewise, there is a huge difference between our knowledge that we will all die and the moment we are told we have metastatic lung cancer. Now its personal. A Hindu aphorism puts it this way “The surprise of surprises is that although everybody who has ever lived in this world has died, for some reason, we think we won’t.” We are ingenious when it comes to keeping unpleasant truths at a distance.
When I asked the people in Fatih and Real Life to describe how they felt when they had been a great risk, there were many stories. When it was time to go into surgery or face a difficult diagnosis, some were afraid, some lived day by day (one man, for nine months), some remembered how others had lived and others worried most about the people they might leave behind. But, one thing they all had in common. Their experience was behind them. The intensity had faded. They were largely back to normal.
We do not like facing our mortality. We do not like facing that helplessness is part of our existence. No amount of vigilance, hard work or denial can protect us. But unless we acknowledge what we cannot do, we will waste our lives and very likely cause harm to the body.
It was just four weeks ago that I sat in a meeting to discuss pausing our worship services because of the coronavirus. On that day, schools were still open and there was voiced concern that we might be responding prematurely. The guidelines suggested we avoid groups of 250 or more. Then, with a speed I could not keep up with, the guidelines changed—from limiting gatherings of 250, to 50, to 10 and finally the mandate that we shelter in home. It was hard to absorb the new reality— a contagious disease was sweeping across the world. But, even as the death toll started to climb in far off countries, it was hard to see the threat was imminent . In Decatur, spring was in mid arrival, flowers were blooming, spring breaks were being planned, graduations were looming, concerts scheduled…etc. Life was normal. How could a virus originating thousands of miles away really be a threat?
The pandemic has punctured the illusion of our safety and self sufficiency. We have had the luxury of being insulated from the harsher vulnerabilities and hardships of the world. Oceans separate us from global conflicts. Our wealth and power have made us victors in almost every war we have fought. We expect to win. We believe in self sufficiency, self reliance, perseverance and self determination. Those values have carried us a long way but unfortunately anything that can be done, can be overdone.
The dark side of such a world view is that we can easily believe that we can do anything if we try. When that happens the very traits we admire become idolatrous. They keep us from seeing who we really are—creatures who are frail, dependent and deeply interconnected. We don’t like those traits. We don’t like who we are—especially when it means surrendering to our created vulnerability. Such vulnerability is dangerous and we work hard to avoid it. Biblically, the Tower of Babel, the Israelite tribes yearning for a king and ‘faith by works’ illustrate our deep human need to secure our own safety. When we seek to become ‘masters of our own destiny’, we, all too easily, lose the reality of our need for God. As much as we would like to depend upon God, we are hard wired not to.
I absolutely get why the women fled the tomb in terror. No matter what Jesus said, there was no preparation for an empty tomb. Jesus had foretold his death and ressurection many times but he might as well have been describing the color blue to a color blind person. Jesus did not follow the rules and he often did the unexpected. That is hard enough—he confused even his disciples. Not following the rules of religion or society was one thing but now he was operating outside of the most basic ‘rule of life’ —death is final. If you can’t count on death, what can you count on? There was no way to conceive of Jesus on the loose, living outside the bounds of what we know to be true.
It might sound like good news but it is frightening and profoundly disorienting. Very few of us handle the completely unexpected very well. As much as we yearn for it, the gift of grace is just too chancy. We want something we can control and measure so we can know where we stand. We want rules and directions. We want to know what we can count on. Without such things we are infants entirely dependent upon our mother’s for our survival. That is terrifying.
Mark ends his gospel in the raw experience of life turned upside down. Even when what has been promised becomes real, it is frightening to discover its truth. It is ironic that we are called to worship a path that is so deeply contrary to what we know—but it is the way to life. The amazing thing is that the very thing we are hardwired to fear—the vulnerability of our creation—is what saves us. The other gospels flesh out the different ways this improbable, unexpected Jesus was experienced after the cross. He shows up in many ways. He is present in deep relationships; he is present in ordinary meals. He is present when we are doubting and afraid. Just as he joined us then, Jesus joins us now. But Mark’s gospel ends before the Hallelujahs. It was too soon to process what this might mean.
Our present is frightening and uncertain. But, God willing, the pandemic will teach us that all of us are vulnerable. It will teach us that what happens to one can happen to us all. It will teach us that sharing our isolation exposes our need for one another. Perhaps we can be more grateful for the life that we have—even when it includes suffering, pain and death and perhaps we can be more mindful of each other. If so,
We will meet the risen Lord. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Let it be so.
We will meet the risen Lord. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Let it be so.