They had planned it all so carefully. How could they not have planned it all so carefully – the women didn’t have anything else to do on that grim, gray Sabbath. And going over in their minds exactly what they had to do as soon as the sun went down prevented them from going over anything else in their minds. Thoughts of spices – Which to buy? How many pounds? And which oils would they need? – crowded out the sounds and the smells of the betrayal and the beatings and the blood. Thoughts of which vendors might be open when the Sabbath had passed helped to push out the memories of those Roman soldiers playing a pavement game for Jesus’ robe while Jesus himself hung painfully exposed and drowning in his own weight. Thoughts and plans gave them a sense of purpose, gave them enough rhythm to keep their broken hearts beating, kept them just busy enough that there was hardly any chance that they would remember the stillness – that horrifying stillness – just after Jesus breathed his last…and just before his mother cried out as if a sword had pierced her own soul too. They had planned so carefully. It was just what they did as women, as disciples. It was just what they did to keep the tears away.
And so when the sun set they were off, walking quickly to the market, faces wrapped in their shawls to avoid pestering questions and pity-filled glances. They bought what they needed, not even needing to haggle over the price, as the man who sold them the spices was doubly generous, charging them very little and also never, not once, meeting their eyes, or asking how they were, or saying that he was sorry. Thank God. They had no time for sorry, no time to think about how they were. They had a plan, the Marys and Salome. They had a plan and nowhere in that plan did it say, “Now the women who loved Jesus, who gave up everything to follow him, who knew the ring of his laugh and the power of his presence, now these women fall to pieces.” No, there was no time, no room for that. They had work to do.
They didn’t sleep that night. How could they, with all of their plans whipping around in their minds. When the solid blackness outside their windows finally began to soften to gray, they arose, dressed, and, without a word, hoisted all of their purchases onto their shoulders and began to walk, step by step, to the tomb. Along the way, they worried with each other about the one part of the plan that they had not been able to work out: the stone. There was that giant disc of a stone rolled into a slot to cover the open doorway. It was mammoth, heavy enough to keep out animals…and, they feared, three slight women. But there was nothing to be done about it; they would just have to figure it out when they got there.
By the time they arrived at the tomb, the sun had just begun to kiss the tips of the grass with silver light. The place looked so different than it had on Friday afternoon. The hot, dry dust had stilled, the air felt cool and damp, and the world was entirely hushed. And the stone, the giant stumbling block of the stone, had been rolled back already, the entrance to the tomb stood open, quiet and inviting. Without a word, they set down their packs and stepped into the cool chamber, so new and clean...and so empty. No body. No blood. No plan. Just a young man, sitting in a white robe and speaking to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus. But he has risen. Look at the floor, you see that he is no longer here. He is already gone, gone ahead to the Galilee. Women, go, and tell his disciples what you have seen and heard here.”
They look at the young man, dazzling in his white cloth and white smile. They look at the floor, bare except for a linen shroud tossed aside into the corner, and look at each other with wide eyes. Then they look at their carefully planned purchases sitting in packs outside the door, and they realize their mistake. For all of their thinking, all of their organizing yesterday in the darkness of the Sabbath, they had forgotten something critical. They forgot that Jesus had told them that this would happen – that he would be killed, and that he would be raised on the third day. In all of their planning, they had never once imagined that he might actually have been speaking the truth. They had never planned that they might not find him here, and so they have brought entirely the wrong thing. They have brought only their sorrow when they should have brought their hope. They have brought spices to anoint the dead when they should have brought walking shoes to follow the living, to run after the risen Jesus wherever he would lead them.
I wonder if this is part of why they ran away. Maybe it was not so much because the young man scared them; after all, in this story there is no appearance like lightning, no rumble of earthquake. No, there was just this – just a man telling them that Jesus had risen, and the simple truth that they were utterly unprepared for that. They had had no idea what had been coming. Jesus had actually been raised from the dead. He was actually the Messiah, the anointed one of God. The world had actually changed. He was risen; the resurrection was true! And trembling and astonishment came upon the women, and they fled, and they said not a thing to anyone, because this truth was simply terrifying.
Now we know that the women must have said something eventually – the Gospel of Mark was written down, after all, by a community of disciples whose whole lives had changed because of the resurrection. Mark even provides us with some alternate endings to his book, sort of the director’s cut of the Gospel, where Jesus appears to the disciples and tells them how to live their faith in this post-resurrection world. But the oldest ending of Mark is this one, where the women are shaken to their core and run away. Which means that the oldest editions of Mark’s Gospel thought that this ending had something to teach us, something to show us that could help us to live out our own lives more fully and more faithfully.
Here is the question that I think this shorter ending of Mark asks: what are you and I planning for? Are we planning for a world in which Christ is palpable and present, or are we planning for a world where he feels mostly absent? Do we expect to find Christ risen and thriving and moving ahead of us, or do we imagine that actually, he might be dead? When we leave this church building tonight, do we expect to find traces of his presence everywhere, shining imprints of where he has been, blessings he has bestowed, healings he has offered? Or do we imagine that at some point the glory of this night will wear off, that when the incense has washed out of our clothes and the traces of wax have been peeled off of our fingertips, we will once again find ourselves looking at an empty world where Christ has little to do with our day-to-day living?
You can see why it makes so much sense that the women ran away afraid. Because the idea that something real happened in that tomb, the idea that something that true, that powerful, that generous had happened was – at first, at least – a little more than they could handle, just as the idea that something that true, that real, and that generous is present in our own lives can also be more than we can handle. Sometimes it’s just easier to plan as if Christ won’t be there. You know what this feels like. We’ve all done it. We wake up, stretch, breathe in, and imagine our day as if our own power and planning can make the whole thing happen. We work hard to accept that there are just some things we have to handle on our own. We pray, of course, and invite God to abide in our busy minds, but when he doesn’t always show up at the time or in the way that we want him too, we aren’t entirely surprised. We accept; we sit in the darkness of our own lives and fill up our minds and hearts with thoughts and plans that help us to feel like we can actually be in control, that our thoughts and plans are actually the most important thing that we do.
But these holy women remind you and me not to sell ourselves – or our God – so short. There is grace to be had in this world. We reaffirm this every time we take communion, every time we welcome a new sister in Christ like we welcomed little Stephanie this evening. This is the truth – the tomb is empty, and the world is full. So let’s be ready. Let’s bring our walking shoes, bring our hopes and our expectations; let’s plan on finding Christ when we are in this place and when we leave this place, let’s look for where he might lead us, where he might have gone before us, the ways he has invited us to follow him. Let’s plan to find Christ in our lives and in our society, and then let’s be sure to bring the right stuff with us to follow him – our hearts and souls and minds, our love, our hope, our new life in him.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Great Vigil of Easter, April 7, 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia