There’s no doubt they were traumatized. Just two days before, the one who’d taught them, who’d given them hope, who’d invited them to see the world as more just and loving…just two days before, betrayed by both the government and their religion, the one in whom their hope resided was executed.
A couple of hours after Jesus died, Sabbath began. Sabbath…a time to cease from labor, a time when most actions were forbidden. “Holy Saturday,” the church has come to call it. For those experiencing the first one, it probably felt more like an UNholy Saturday. Sitting with the trauma, prohibited from taking any action. Images and sounds from the previous day replaying in their minds. Waves of grief hitting them again and again.
No wonder those women–seeing the first ray of sunshine announcing Sabbath’s end–headed straight for the market to buy spices, then on to the tomb in which Jesus had been laid. Not only was anointing his body a necessary task, it was a task. Finally, after what must have felt like the longest Sabbath in history, finally, they had something to do.
On the way to the tomb, they chatted…mostly about how the three of them, Mary Magdalene, James’ mother, and Salome, were going to remove the large stone that had been placed over the tomb’s opening.
It’s easy to forget sometimes just how much emotional work the women had done in the hours since Jesus’ death. Jesus’ trial and death had happened in a flash. Since that time, the women, somehow–even amid the trauma–had accepted Jesus’ death. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one through unexpected violence know…accepting the death is hard. Simply believing that it happened takes tremendous emotional and mental work.
The women’s arrival at Jesus’ tomb that morning–bearing death spices–is a testament to the emotional work they’d done. They had accepted the fact: Jesus was dead.
So when they arrived at the tomb–the stone rolled away–and a young man dressed in white saying Jesus wasn’t there– “Look where he was laid. See? He’s not here!” Would you believe it? You’d already spent the time since the crucifixion trying to accept the unbelievable fact of Jesus’ death. Now you’re supposed to accept a second unbelievable fact: that Jesus is alive? A person’s imagination– not to mention her heart–can only hold so much. Having your world turned completely upside down twice in three days? That’s a lot. A lot. Is it no wonder the women fled? Is it no wonder they were afraid?
Last week in Sunday School, as we discussed theologian James Cones’ view of the cross, one person said, “I think I’m still really focused on the crucifixion. I haven’t yet made it to the resurrection. I will at some point. Right now, though, I’m focused on the crucifixion.”
It’s easy to get stuck on crucifixion, on injustice, on pain and suffering and death… especially when the Sunday School teacher spends so much time talking about it all Lent long! How do we shift from crucifixion-thinking to resurrection-thinking? How do we shift from terror to joy?
Another of our conversation partners this Lent has been German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann. As a teenager drafted into Hitler’s army, Moltmann experienced tremendous suffering. He watched his hometown of Hamburg decimated by the British. He saw friends die. He spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Scotland. It was only when he experienced God’s presence in the midst of his very real suffering that Moltmann was able to believe in God.
Moltmann’s theology took us to deep, hard places…which is why I was surprised by what I saw in a recorded interview with him. Jurgen Moltmann exudes joy! When asked how one moves from the experience of terror to an experience of joy, Moltmann starts with Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Reading that statement as a teenage soldier, Moltmann knew he had “a divine brother who knew how he felt.” “When I feel the presence of God (in my suffering), my heart is lifted up. I see God coming into the future. Thus, is joy awakened in me.”
As today’s resurrection story ends, the women are afraid and, though entreated to tell Peter and the disciples about the empty tomb, they say nothing to anyone.
But, obviously, they did say something to someone sometime. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here today celebrating the resurrection! At some point, the women’s terror shifted to joy.
If you read past today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of Mark, you’ll see the work of a couple of nervous editors. The women leaving the empty tomb in fear saying nothing to anyone…that wasn’t going to get a movement started. “The women fled the tomb in terror and didn’t say anything to anyone. Come join our movement!” So, some editors got creative and filled in the blanks. And immediately they reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. After this, through them, Jesus sent forth the holy and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Whew! Problem solved.
To be clear, the two Marys and Salome must eventually have gotten to joy from terror. But the original ending of the story–with the women still focused on crucifixion– suggests that getting from terror to joy doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time.
But something that might help, as Jurgen Moltmann suggests, is facing squarely the terror and the circumstances that are causing it, then find God in the midst of the terror, in the midst of the suffering. If we face the terror squarely, if we experience the suffering, if we experience God’s presence in the midst of the suffering, then we’ll be able to experience the joy.
In July 2018, 39 of us made a pilgrimage to Montgomery to visit the newly-opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Memorial. The Memorial consists of large, metal pillars suspended from the structure’s ceiling. The likeness to hanging bodies is clear. Each pillar represents a county in which lynchings occurred. The names of victims and dates of their deaths are recorded on each pillar.
Descended from slaveholders, I joined the pilgrimage with trepidation. When I learned of my family’s slaveholding past, the feelings of guilt nearly incapacitated me. How could people with my DNA think they could own other human beings? How could I ever atone for their cruelty? How could I, a white Southerner descended from slaveowners, do anything in the cause for racial justice?
I entered the memorial feeling the weight of those questions. Just ten steps in, the horror hit full force. So many pillars. So many names. So much cruelty. So much death. Executions occurred for the tiniest of crimes—knocking on someone’s front door, looking another person in the eye, writing a note to a white person. A plexiglass box at the center of the Memorial contains dirt collected from sites of lynchings across the South. Whose DNA might be mingled with those grains of soil? Whose lifeless body hung above these bits of dirt?
At the Memorial’s lowest point, a sheet of water cascades down a wall dedicated to thousands of lynching victims whose deaths were not documented. As I sat amidst the horror, weighed down by guilt, I wondered—did the water represent tears for those who were lost? Or did it represent the prophet’s call to let “justice roll down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”? Did it proclaim tears or justice? Did it depict crucifixion or resurrection?
The answer to those questions came to me as I walked up the ramp leading out of the depths of the Memorial. I had expected to feel even more devastation, even more shame. But, oddly, I didn’t feel either. As I emerged into the sunlight that day, what I felt was…hope. Now that I had faced squarely (to the extent that I as a white person am able to do so) the terror of lynching and, potentially, my ancestors’ participation in it, now that I had seen (to the extent that I am able to see it) the crucifixion of so many people, suddenly, surprisingly, resurrection felt possible.
I know. Easter’s supposed to be about joy, joy, joy! And it is. Easter is joy. Easter is the deepest kind of joy there is. In fact, Jurgen Moltmann says the thing that makes Christianity unique from other faiths is that at the center of our faith is joy. Our core message is the Gospel, which means good news. And what accompanies good news? Joy, right!
Emerging from the Memorial that day, I felt the good news. I felt deep hope. Regarding achieving racial equity, I don’t yet feel joy, but I am beginning to believe in the possibility of resurrection. That, in itself, feels like a miracle.
Are you joyful today? Are you hopeful? Is there some circumstance about which you have received some good news? Are you beginning to believe in the possibility of resurrection? If so, that is good news–very good news, indeed!
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021