Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mark 16: Resurrection Is Scary

Yesterday, I was reading the New York Times's coverage of Pope Benedict's Easter address, in which the pontiff stealthily avoided addressing a revived sex-abuse crisis. In the article, reporter David Wakin describes Easter as "the day Christians celebrate the joy of Jesus’ resurrection."

It's difficult to gainsay his definition, but there is something in that word "joy" that strikes me as editorializing. Not to say that, for Christians, the resurrection isn't a joyous event. Indeed, it is the image that proves beyond a doubt that Jesus's death was not in vain--that it was a death whose sacrificial worth saves believers from the oppressive power of sin.

However, it took many years for early Christians to recast the bloody execution of their savior on a cross as a cause for celebration. Jesus's immediate followers, on the other hand, seem to meet the news of Jesus's return with a much different emotion: terror.

I'm referring, of course, to the last chapter of Mark, the earliest gospel narrative. Mark's gospel is the most unsparing in its portrait of Jesus's last days, and it delivers troubling insights into the mind of Christ as he slouches toward the cross.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus is "deeply grieved, even to death" (14:34) and begs God twice that He "remove this cup from me" (14:36). Further, Jesus's last words on the cross suggest that in his final moments, Jesus does not feel joy but abandonment: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34). Shortly thereafter, he breathes his last breath. These words are a far cry from Christ's self-satisfied utterance at the end of John: "It is finished" (19:30).

Mark continues his narrative with the entombment of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. And good Christians know what comes next: two nights of waiting followed by a Sunday-morning surprise. However, in Mark, the resurrection comes as a frightening shock to the disciples who first witness it.

As in Matthew, Luke, and John, women experience the miracle first. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to the grave in the morning so that they might anoint the body of Jesus. They arrive to find that the great stone blocking the entrance has been removed; a "young man" inside tells them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here" (16:5-6).

Especially for modern Christians, I think, the women's response is alarming: "They went out and fled the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (16:8). This is not "joy." This is flat-out fear.

And this is where the earliest versions of the gospel of Mark end. Later redactors, uncomfortable with this ambiguous conclusion, add two alternate endings: a short one in which Jesus appears promising "eternal salvation" and a longer one in which the resurrection is called "good news," and in which those who spread it gain supernatural powers like snake-handling and resistance to poison. (Seriously!)

But in the earliest Mark, these heartening appendices are absent, and Jesus's return inspires only gasping and fearful silence. It will take decades--and the hard interpretive work of Paul--before this silence can be replaced by "joy."

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