On the morning of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome made their way to Jesus’ tomb. They brought spices with them to complete the burial process that was interrupted because the Sabbath arrived before they could finish their work. As they walked to the tomb, they remembered the stone that covered the entrance. While they had the spices, who as going to reopen the tomb? That question was quickly answered when they arrived at the tomb. It was already open and where they expected to find the body sat a young man dressed in a white robe. He spoke gently to the women who surely were in shock, telling them: “Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” Then he instructed them to “tell [Jesus’] disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” When they heard all of this, Mark tells us that the women fled in “terror and amazement.” Mark ends his gospel rather abruptly, but this ending does raise a question: What would you have done if you had been in their place?
The other Gospels fill in the gaps left by Mark’s Gospel. So, for instance, the Gospel of John tells us Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene who then shares the good news of the resurrection with the other disciples. That makes her the apostle to the apostles (Jn. 20:11-18).
We hear the message of Jesus’ resurrection knowing that more than 550,000 people in the United States have died of COVID. This number continues to grow since the pandemic is still with us. That is the context in which we hear the promise of the resurrection.
While we’ve heard Mark’s rather truncated version of the Easter story, we’ve also heard a word from Isaiah 25. The message of the prophet is that God will destroy the shroud of death “that is cast over all peoples.” Yes, God “will swallow up death forever” and “God will wipe away the tears from all their faces” (Is. 25:7-8).
We hear something similar from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. He tells the Corinthians that “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” So, “where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55). This is the message of Easter, the message of the resurrection. Death has lost its sting.
To say that death lost its sting doesn’t take away from the reality of death. It doesn’t take away the reality of our grief, because that grief is real. Our losses are real. They affect our lives and we might wonder whether the joy promised by Isaiah is possible. Angela Williams Gorrell has experienced grief and great loss in her life, but she has also experienced joy in the midst of her suffering. She writes that “joy is a counteragent to despair because it can be sustained and sustain us, even when standing right next to sorrow.” She writes something about the relationship of suffering and death to joy that I believe connects with the Gospel stories. That is, joy is communal. So she writes: “We must rejoice together. If I am feeling as though I have no goodness to remember, no joy to recall, if my well is running dry, I can drink from your well of joy” [The Gravity of Joy, p. 138, 175]. That is the good news delivered to the disciples that first Easter morning. They will find joy within the community.
While the larger context to Isaiah’s promise that God will swallow up death includes a word of judgment on Israel’s neighbors, the invitation to rejoice and be glad is inclusive. Isaiah declares that “all people” have been invited to the feast that God is going to prepare. Yes, Isaiah tells us that God “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” so the people can celebrate God’s victory over death.
When we gather each week at the Table, not only do we remember the events of Jesus’ final meal, we also gather in anticipation of the meal envisioned by Isaiah. This is the messianic banquet that John the Revelator envisioned (Rev. 19:9). This is why our Table fellowship should be one of joy and not sadness.
When we gather at the Table, we celebrate the promise that God has swallowed up death forever and that God will wipe the tears from the faces of all people. Let us, therefore, be glad and rejoice in God’s promise of salvation!
Yes, although Mark’s Easter story could leave us feeling both terror and amazement, we can find hope in the good news that Jesus will meet us in Galilee. Then we can share in the rich feast God has prepared for us.
When it comes to the promise of the resurrection, might we find a word of assurance and hope in the message St. John of Damascus delivered long ago on an Easter Sunday:
Enter ye all, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and let both the first and those who come after partake of the reward. Rich and poor, dance one with another. Ye who fast and ye who fast not, rejoice today. The table is full-laden: do you all fare sumptuously. The calf is ample: let none go hungry.
Let all partake of the banquet of faith. Let all partake of the riches of goodness.
Let none lament his poverty; for the Kingdom is manifested for all.
Let none bewail his transgressions; for pardon has dawned from the tomb.
Let none fear death; for the death of the Saviour has set us free. …
Christ is risen and there is none dead in the tomb. For Christ is raised from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. To him be glory and dominion from all ages to all ages. Amen. [Quoted in Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 248].
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 4, 2021
Image attribution: JESUS MAFA. Easter, Empty Tomb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48301 [retrieved April 3, 2021]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).