They were afraid
“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.” Mark 16:8
When I was a little girl, at night I would often see a shadow in the upper corner of my bedroom. It was just some trick of how the moonlight came through the window and bounced off the furniture, but it looked exactly like a man lying down on the ceiling. My logical, rational self knew that it wasn’t a real person, but the logical, rational self doesn’t do its best work in the middle of the night. That shadow scared me. For a long time I was convinced it would come to life and grab me.
That’s the thing about fear. No matter how much we try to reason with ourselves, it can get the better of us. The rapid heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the racing mind at 2:00 in the morning. Sometimes we just can’t control it.
It’s one of the things I love about the Easter story from the Gospel of Mark. We have these three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome. They are coming to the tomb early in the morning with spices for Jesus’ body, so we know they have a certain fortitude. It takes courage to show up and anoint a corpse. I don’t see Peter or any of those other guys heading to the tomb at sunrise.
The women aren’t even talking about the horrific events of the last few days. They’re focused only on practical matters. How will they get that heavy stone rolled away?
So put yourself in their position as they get closer. The stone has already been moved? Who would have done such a thing?
And then they’re close enough to look inside, where they see not the dead body they were expecting, but a young man in a white robe. They were alarmed, it says. I bet. I’m sure “alarmed” is an understatement.
The young man has good news for them: “He has been raised; he is not here.”
It’s good news, except that it makes no sense. What the young man is saying makes…no…sense. The reaction of the women, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. They are afraid: “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.” Almost every word in that sentence highlights their fear. They are seized with terror. They are afraid. Of course they ran. I would have too.
If you were to open your Bibles to the Gospel of Mark, you’ll find that there are a few more verses in Chapter 16, this final chapter – a couple of stories of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and to some other followers. But scholars agree that everything after what we heard this morning was added later. What we heard today was the original ending of Mark. It ends with fear.
When Hollywood looks to make a movie about resurrection, Mark is not the version they choose. Hollywood prefers resolution, a clear ending. Even when people in movies must say goodbye, they do so with memorable parting words. Think Casablanca’s “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” or E.T.’s “I’ll be right here.”
Hollywood would never go for three terrified women running down the road. For heaven’s sake, in this version Jesus doesn’t even show up for his own resurrection.
All those accounts of Jesus appearing after his resurrection? They come later – in other gospels, other versions of the story. They’re good stories, and we’ll hear several of them in the coming weeks. But today, on this Easter morning, all we get is an empty tomb and some terrified women.
And that’s what makes it so beautiful. That empty tomb meets us right in the middle of our lives.
Because we all understand fear. Fear is the uncertain shadow on a medical scan. It’s the sound of sirens as an ambulance goes rushing by. It’s the evening news, the sense that violence is around every corner, that nowhere is safe. It’s the struggle of someone you love whose disease you can’t fix. It’s our longing to gather all of our loved ones into one place and enfold them in bubble wrap.
Fear comes even when we’re preparing for a new chapter – starting a different job, retiring, beginning a relationship, moving to a new home, having a baby, starting college, watching a kid head off to school. Those changes are filled with possibility and hope. They’re also scary.
The empty tomb tells us this: Yes, be afraid. That’s normal. But whether we see Jesus with our own eyes or not, we know he has defeated death. The thing we’re most afraid of has been destroyed, and that means we are free to live and to love in powerful new ways.
How will we do that? How will we respond to this tremendous, terrifying news that the tomb could not contain the Savior? How will we, in our daily lives, in our little corners of the world, embody the love of Jesus? It’s a question each of us answers in our own way, but the answer matters. The world needs what we can offer, even when we are afraid of what might happen.
When we go all the way back to the start of Mark’s Gospel, we see that it begins with only a fragment of a sentence. It says simply: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And yet that opening reminds us that what follows across the next 16 chapters is only a beginning. The story continues. It reaches past that abrupt, incomplete ending. It reaches beyond the fear and silence of the women. It reaches across the centuries to this moment, this place, this time in which we, too, have a chance to add to the story of Jesus, who is alive and on the loose in the world and here with us now – in the bread and the wine, in the body of Christ gathered together in this place.
The women eventually broke their silence. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. The women told someone, probably with their voices trembling and their knees shaking, but they told someone, who told someone else, who told someone else. The story could not be contained. Jesus can never be contained.
So let’s add our voices to that story, however scary it might be. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ