Easter Vigil, Year B, 2018 – Mark 16:1-8
They fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
It is a strange ending for a Gospel. It is a strange beginning for Easter.
Where are the trumpets and the lilies and the happy smiles? Where is the Easter joy? Here there are only three women at a tomb, three women fleeing a tomb in the half-light of dawn, and silence, and fear.
It is a strange way to greet Easter; it is perhaps not what we were hoping to hear.
But it speaks what is true.
We stand this holy night in the presence of a great mystery—mysterium tremens, the Latin can say, in a wonderful phrase. The women are right to be afraid. Trembling and astonishment, τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις, had seized them, Mark’s gospel tells us. These are words that describe the awe of the people in the presence of the power of God. Astonishment, ἔκστασις, has occurred once before in Mark’s gospel: when Jesus takes the girl who has died by the hand and raises her up. “And immediately the girl rose” – άνέστη, Mark’s Greek says, the word used down through the ages for Christ’s resurrection – she rose “and began to walk about. She was 12 years old. And they were seized with astonishment” (Mark 5:42).
Lo, heaven and the highest heaven,
The abyss and the earth,
Tremble at God’s visitation! Sirach says.
The very mountains…shake with trembling when
He looks upon them. (Sir 16:18-19)
Trembling is what happens when we look up and find that we are standing in the presence of the holy God.
He is not here. He is risen, the angels says. And the women flee in fear and trembling from God’s visitation.
They flee because they see in the empty tomb a word to shatter their world.
They come to the tomb in grief. They come from the foot of the cross. I think we cannot imagine the desolation they feel: Jesus their Lord, beloved teacher and friend, Jesus who blessed the children and healed the sick and forgave the guilty and challenged the hypocrites, Jesus who touched the streets of Galilee with the love and the truth of God in real acts of compassion, Jesus their Christ crucified, their King dying at the hands of his own people the death of a slave and a criminal. It was for them surely the end of hope. The women came to the tomb in the crepuscular dawn with desolation in their hearts. They came with spices, in sorrow, to anoint the body they know they will find.
But they do not find it. They do not find him. There at the tomb they do not find the body of their Lord. They find only an impossible word.
You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He is risen. He is not here.
If the tomb was devastating, it was nevertheless, on this day after the death of their Lord, what they expected. And it is what we expect. We are not surprised by the crucifixion of Jesus. We are grieved, but we are not surprised. His death is part of the script of the world. It is part of the script of the world as we know it, as we make it, in the brokenness of our hearts. This is a world in which we crucify, now as then, and gather round to jeer at the ones we have rejected. In this world the cross is true, and everything that it represents: the suffering of so many people and the malevolence that makes that suffering worse, even the malevolence of our own hearts. Suffering and the unloveliness of our hearts, these hearts that turn away even from the God who loves us. This is a world in which suffering and the malevolence of our hearts are true, and so it is a world in which the tomb is true also.
The women go to the tomb in grief, but not in surprise. This is a script they know. It is the story of the darkness in our lives.
And at the tomb, they hear the impossible word. He is risen. He is not here.
This is not a word that we can speak. It is a word beyond our imagining. It does not follow from the suffering, from the unloveliness of our lives. It is an angel word. Above and through and out of our darkness it speaks. And it speaks a whole history of the love of God.
Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
To Noah in the time of the flood, to Israel in slavery in Egypt, to his people in their time of exile—the exile that they came to understand as the consequence of their turning away from their God and from his love—to his people in the agony of their exile, God speaks. And he says, Come to the waters.[[The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and he set me down in the midst of a valley. It was full of bones…There were very many bones lying in the valley and they were very dry. He said to me,]] “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Can these bones live? We know these bones. We are familiar with the desert in which they lie.
Under a juniper tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other. (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday, II).
We know these bones and their desolation, the land of lost hope. This is the whole house of God’s people, scattered and desolate under the juniper tree.
Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know. Lord God of Israel, Lord of the church, you know.
Then he said to me, “There fore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people.”
O my people, I am with you, even in the desert of dry bones. I am with you in the man Jesus Christ in the place of desolation you have made. I am with you in his pierced hands, in his broken body and his blood poured out. I am with you. I am with you always, even at the grave.
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!
We know the story that ends in tomb. It is the narrative we have made.
But God speaks tonight a different word. O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.
In the place of judgement, in the place of exile—even in the place of our sin—here on this night, the Word of the Lord. O my people. It is the word of love.
It does not ignore the desert we have made. God knows what we have done, what we are still doing. He knows. And he comes to us there, in his beloved son.
Father, how wonderful your love for us. This is the night on which the word of judgement, even this death, became in God’s hands also and finally the Word of Love.
It is love the women discover at the tomb, the love of the Lord who comes to us, who abides with us, even in the valley of dry bones. Who does not leave us there alone. It is love the women discover at the tomb this night.
And they are afraid. For the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord is a word to break and to remake the world. The place of love is in the valley of dry bones. The place of love is with the people who are lost, who are dying, who do not know their Lord. This is our place, in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the love to which we are called. It is a love that suffers. It is a love to remake the world.