It’s quieter now. But the mystery lingers. For masses during the day on Easter, after the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s little sermon to the household of the Centurion Cornelius, we are given a choice of readings. For the gospel reading, the contrast could hardly be greater – for Mark’s version and John’s differ greatly – possibly because Mark’s was likely the first to be written, and John’s the last, over a period of perhaps 20 years or more.
Both passages conclude quietly enough, although there is much more yet to be told. In John’s account, Mary not only followed Peter and John to the empty tomb, but stayed behind when they left, and there she encounters the risen Lord – not at first recognizing him. In Mark’s version, the women remain silent and hide for a while, but he too goes on to describe how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene who dashes back to the eleven with the good news, but they will not believe her. He quickly inserts a note that Jesus next appeared to two disciples, who also failed to receive a hearing when they returned to Jerusalem. Luke will tell us much more about that encounter. Finally, Jesus himself appears to the eleven, and the gospel rushes on to its conclusion. John has a good deal more to say, and we will be meditating on it for weeks to come.
But here it’s appropriate, perhaps unavoidable, to wonder why these gospel passages are placed here today, cut off on a note of surprise, fear, and even doubt. Perhaps it’s because we need that reminder, too. Last night we celebrated the Lord’s resurrection as a great triumph of light over darkness, of life over death. We might benefit now from a reminder that even then his closest disciples did not expect him to rise and did not at first believe that he did. Not even Mary Magdalene could believe her eyes. They were scared. And stubborn. Not by accident, the first thing the angelic witnesses say as Jesus himself will say is “Don’t be afraid.”
What were they afraid of, those first witnesses of the Risen Lord? Probably what we are at least half afraid of still: it might just be true.
Science tells us it cannot be so. Philosophers and novelists tell us it can’t be so, not literally true. Even Christian theologians sometimes grow evasive about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is, after all, much easier and much simpler to think of the resurrection as a purely spiritual event, the raising of the memory of Jesus to indelibility because of the power of his message and his courage in the face of an unjust and cruel execution. Then why, I wonder, go to all that trouble to move his disciples to belief in his risen presence? Why not just inspire them?
I suppose the simple answer is that the gospel of Jesus is not just another Great Idea. Actually, Paul himself, no mean intellectual, rarely speaks of Jesus’ teaching. He is focused almost obsessively on the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, his bodily presence and redeeming sacrifice. And so are John and Peter, who use the word “touch” so frequently. We touched him. We ate and drank with him. He lives. And if so, then there are consequences. Scary ones.
So perhaps what those frightened women and skeptical men had cause to fear that morning so long ago was the sudden realization that somehow, despite everything, despite the horror of Jesus’ death, despite the paralysis that drove the Eleven into hiding, despite their own sorrow, doubts, and anxiety, somehow it is — unthinkably, unimaginably, incredibly — true.