13 April 2009

Go & Tell

Mark 16: 1-8

Resurrection of the Lord/ 12th April 2009

The startling thing about Mark’s gospel is that absence pervades this text. It’s everywhere. The surest sign that something’s missing is in the way Mark tells his story. This morning, I stopped reading at verse 8. Although verses 9 through 19 are included in all Bibles, a good translation will be honest and note that the earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel we have stop at verse 8. They omit verses 9 through 19. Read it closely and it’s easy to see that the language doesn’t belong to Mark. Scholars suspect that these verses were part of a second century catechism to prepare new believers for baptism.

Why did early Christians feel compelled to add to Mark’s gospel? Because there’s something missing here – such as the rest of a sentence! As we were taught in English grammar classes, one should never end a sentence with a preposition. The same was true in Koine (Common) Greek. And what do we have in the earliest Greek manuscripts of Mark right at the end of verse 8? Our translations clean it up and read, “for they were afraid.” In the Greek it reads, Ephobounto gar, “…they were afraid for.” That’s how it ends, abruptly, cut-off, crying out for something more.[1] Was there more to it? Did part of the parchment break off and crumble away, dissolved into dust? Or was that exactly how Mark intended to end his gospel, which was entirely possible (rare, but possible)?[2] It’s clear that early Christians didn’t like his resolution to the story because they came up with their own to fill the gap, fill the void, to fill the absence.

Look at verse 9 and it becomes very clear what some in the early church were troubled by in Mark’s gospel: “Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene…” and so forth. Go back to 16:1. Mary Magdalene and the other women are there – but something’s missing, someone, actually: Jesus. It’s exquisitely ironic that Jesus is absent from Mark’s resurrection account. He’s missing a resurrection appearance. No wonder people have been unsatisfied with this open-ending. Mark is not saying – and I’m not saying – that Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the grave. Mark isn’t interested in providing arguments or “proof” for the resurrection and neither am I – that’s always a dead end. There’s something substantially more important than reason at stake in Mark’s masterful account of an empty tomb, something more profound.

Mark has no interest in providing us with a happy ending and neither do I. But neither is this tragic irresolution. Mark doesn’t try to answer all of our faith questions, wrap them up in a beautiful package with a ribbon and say, “Here. Believe this.” In fact, in entering the tomb, we enter and experience and open ourselves to even more questions. Reality is infinitely more complex, not less so, when you have formerly dead people walking around! Reality is considerably more complicated, not less so, when we walk into resurrection! The women left terrified, amazed, and beside themselves.

With a profound respect for the mystery of resurrection Mark offers it to us and then takes it away at the same time, as if to make sure we never fool ourselves into thinking resurrection is something to be grasped or ever think that Jesus is one to be grasped. And yet, it’s as if Jesus’ absence evokes his presence, causes us to yearn for him. He’s present, but not where we expect him to be. Mark offers us an amazing gift: yes, the resurrection has occurred, but we also know that for many, perhaps for most, Christ’s absence is equally pervasive. I would wager (but Presbyterians don’t play games of chance), this is an experience closer to the truth for many.

It’s closer to my experience. To be candid, every year at Easter, as a preacher of the gospel I proclaim, “He is Risen!” But I struggle. Not in a crisis of belief (I’ve had those before and will have others, I’m sure). I believe it – literally, historically. As physicists have shown us, we live in an open universe, where anything is possible.[3] But I don’t care about proofs or even theological arguments, I know. The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung (1875-1961), was once asked in a famous 1959 BBC interview, “Dr. Jung, do you believe in God?” His answer, after some silence, was, “I don’t believe, I know.”[4] Knowledge is not the same as belief.

But here’s my struggle, holding in tension, on the one hand, my experience that Christ is indeed alive – there is tremendous hope offered on this day of days – along with the realization, on the other hand, that the women don’t leave the tomb full of hope, but with fear and confusion. Absence. We need to wake the living-dead with our hymns and our praise and our audacious hope this day, but also remember that for far too many the hope and promises we claim today all ring hollow, unreal, irrational, saccharine, too sugary, like those marsh-mellowy- yellow-Easter- Peeps-chicken-things – just too dang sweet. (Probably not good for us either.)

Think of the hundreds of people who lost their lives in the earthquake in Italy, or from the killer tornadoes and fires this week in the Midwest, or the many shootings that have occurred all over the country recently, and even Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. What does “He is Risen!” mean for those who are scared? What does “He is Risen!” mean for those who are worried about their finances? There’s a line in a Leonard Cohen song that goes, “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”[5] The world is full of broken hallelujahs.

I was moved to tears this week in a coffee shop reading The New York Times, learning the stories of those killed in the shootings at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York. The association is an immigration service center that teaches English to immigrants preparing to take their citizenship exams, providing all kinds of support services for people new to American society. They were extraordinary people with amazing life-stories, people who weathered many hardships and storms. A volunteer, “Ms. Zobniw was not supposed to be at the association that Friday. The daughter of Ukrainian parents, she got a call asking for translation help.” She got in her car and went and never returned home. “Mother of four children, she worked there for five years, correcting homework for Ukrainian immigrants and translating birth certificates.” Her original plan that day was to spend the day baking pastries for Easter.[6] A broken hallelujah.

Can you see my dilemma? It’s also yours. I gift it to you.

That’s why I welcome Mark’s way of telling the story – absence and presence at the same time, not either/or, but both/and. It’s closer to the truth; truer to reality. Not denying the presence of the resurrected Christ, but not afraid to say that affirming Christ’s presence doesn’t immediately swallow up the absence. The German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), said, “God is near but difficult to grasp, but where danger lies, from there, too, deliverance emerges.”[7]

When I read Mark’s text this year the image that emerged was of the absent, Resurrected Christ containing the absence, holding it, in order to redeem it, and do something creative with it. It’s been said absence makes the heart grow fonder.[8] Something similar might be at work here. Christ’s absence actually evokes his presence and entices us to go seeking after him. Christ’s absence draws us out and compels us into action. That’s what absence can do.

That’s what Peter Matthiessen discovered. In his book, The Snow Leopard, he tells his story of hitting a very rough patch in his life, facing inner desperation, but summoned to risk a “silly” passion to remind himself that he was still alive. He left for the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet in search of an elusive snow leopard, a rare, beautiful animal that almost mystically roams those altitudes. It was wonderful, foolish, and risky. It was a perilous journey, requiring great discipline, suffering, and hardship, hearing reports of sightings here and there, tracking the elusive creature, missing him by hours, he finally returns. When asked by others, “Did you see the snow leopard?” he replies, “No – isn’t that wonderful?” [9] It takes a lot of wisdom, maturity, and profound insight to make such a claim. “By then, he had learned that the task [of life] is not to find the object but to live the journey, with passion, and risk, and commitment, and danger. …What if Matthiessen had seen the snow leopard?”[10] Maybe satisfied in the moment, but missing the search, the journey.

Isn’t it always about the journey? Isn’t that what it’s always like with the Crucified? His absence evokes his presence which we search for and seek after our entire lives. The absence calls us and summons us and sends us forward, to Galilee – that’s not a simple journey around the corner from Jerusalem to Galilee. It’s a long, difficult journey.

And here is the hope: the tense of Mark’s verbs here are all leaning into the future. “But go, tell the disciples and Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you (Mark 16:7).”

We don’t know if they ever got to Galilee. Mark doesn’t say. Maybe that’s his point. The journey doesn’t end at the empty tomb or even in Galilee. Those are beginning points. Mark leaves us with unfinished business to do.[11] He leaves it to the reader, the follower, the worshipper; it’s up to you and I to complete the story. We are called to live from our experience, with amazement and hope, go, tell and live your story by looking for our own “Galilee,” searching for your place of meeting, walking toward your place of resurrection. Where is your place of resurrection? What does it look like? Anticipating the journey and the destination, we seek after the ever evasive Christ who goes before us. It’s on the way there, I believe, we find him. As Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” In our search for him, we find him. We can’t be satisfied with their search for him; we each have to take responsibility for getting to Galilee.

And what will we find when we meet him? Is it even worth the effort? Just think, when was the last time Jesus was with the disciples, when were they all together? Just before they all fled and denied him. Now, what are they summoned to? To forgiveness and communion. Hence the emphasis, “and Peter.” Reunion. The same is true for us. Even though we deny and run from him daily, resurrection compels us forward to a new place, to a new place of new beginnings. It’s the chance to start all over again; it’s the possibility of something new breaking into our lives, even when very large secure stones are blocking the way. Broken relationships restored. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Communion.

As the poet T. S. Eliot (1883-1965) knew in his walk with Christ,

“…the faith, and the love and the hope are all in the waiting….

we must be still and still moving

into another intensity, for a further

union, a deeper communion.”[12]

Through God’s grace, that’s what absence can do.

[2] See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 1994).

[3]Open universe” refers to a post-Einsteinium cosmology (as opposed to a Newtonian “closed-world” cosmology). See James E. Loder & W. Jim Neidhardst, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of the Spirit in Theology and Science (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1992); John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996); Thomas F. Torrance, Space Time, and Resurrection (New York: Continuum, 1998); Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise (Belfast: Christian Journals Limited, 1984).

[4] Interview with John Freeman, British Broadcasting Corporation. Jung’s usual response to the question. See Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: A Commentary (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 20, 65n.

[5] “Hallelujah,” text and music by Leonard Cohen.

[6] “Victims Shared a Dream of Living Better Lives,” The New York Times, April 6, 2009, A19, A21.

[7] Quoted by James Hollis, Foreword by David H. Rosen, The Archetypal Imagination (Texas A & M University Press, 2003), 54.

[8] Attributed to Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), song Isle of Beauty, published posthumously in 1850.

[9] Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (1987), emphasis mine.

[10] Commentary on Matthiessen in James Hollis, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life (Gotham Book, 2009), 246-247.

[11]Myers, 400-401.

[12]T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1962), 127, 129.

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