The Heart of the Easter Story

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8 NRSV

He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee.
Human life is sometimes taken in senseless and unspeakable ways. When this happens, those left behind can say and do some extraordinary and surprising things. Take the story we just read for you from the end of the Gospel of Mark. This brief account, a mere 8 verses, of three grieving women coming to anoint the dead body of Jesus but instead finding an empty tomb is what started the tradition of Easter as it is known in the Christian church today. I say started because biblical scholars are in general agreement that Mark was the first gospel ever written, and that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John were derivatives of Mark. There is good evidence that Matthew and Luke probably had a copy of Mark’s manuscript in front of them when they wrote their own versions of the story.
Even though Mark’s version is the first, we are talking about a text that was written at least 30 years after the actual events that inspired the writer of Mark to commit it to writing. In all probability the author of Mark was simply producing a written version of the oral tradition that had grown and developed among the disciples and followers of Jesus after his crucifixion. Therefore we’re not talking about history here. Probably not even talking about an attempt to get the story right in the details. This is a story written for dramatic effect, to evoke emotion, to induce and inspire faith. To find a way forward. He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. The details may or may not be historically accurate, but the details were important to the writer of the story and what the writer was attempting to evoke in his or her audience.
So, let’s take the story on its own terms this morning and see what the story might have to say to us. Three grieving women coming to anoint the dead body of Jesus. One being Mary, the mother of James. Was this the James that was the brother of Jesus? If so, then this was also the Mary that was Jesus’ mother. But we don’t know that for sure. If it was Jesus’ mother one would think that the writer would have said that. Two, Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a disciple and friend of Jesus. She is recorded as staying with Jesus throughout his final moments on the cross, staying with him even after the male disciples had fled. She was at his burial. She arrived at Jesus’ tomb first in the stories of all four gospels. Clearly she is someone who loved Jesus very much. Three, Salome. Little is known for certain about her. She was probably the mother of James and John, two of the disciples of Jesus. Some texts indicate that she may have also been the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother. That would have made Salome Jesus’ aunt. At any rate, these were obviously three women who cared deeply about Jesus. Most likely, they were his closest family and support system.
They were there to anoint the body. In Biblical times, Jews did not embalm the bodies of the dead; rather, they allowed them to return to the earth. The dead were to be buried on the day they died. This makes sense. Given the climate of the Holy Land, bodily decay would begin quite rapidly and the stench of a rotting corpse is difficult to deal with. But by using the aromatic materials, the stench associated with a rotting corpse could be covered for a short time. The family would return to care for the body periodically after death. Often they would add more herbs and spices to the body when they visited to mask the increasingly apparent odor. Once the body had fully decomposed and there was only bones left, these would be collected and re-interred in an ossuary.
In our gospel story, we have three unescorted women, deep in the throes of grief, anticipating both the emotional and the olfactory challenge of anointing a rotting corpse that two days ago was their son, their nephew, their beloved friend, and who are totally uncertain of what they would find what they got to the tomb.
They were also the ones who would have the most difficulty finding a way to deal with his death and to find a way to get on with their lives. To find a way forward.
I would now like to transport you from the first century to the 20th and from the Middle East to Europe and talk about another woman who responded to horrific death in an extraordinary and surprising way.
Dorothee Soelle was born in Germany in 1929. She grew up during the years when Hitler came to power. She was witness to the street sounds going from the playful laughter of her and her friends to the totalitarian crunch of goose stepping Nazi jackboots. Her parents were part of a well educated liberal bourgeois culture in pre WW II Germany who opposed Hitler and the Nazis on idealistic grounds but did little to stop the fascists from gaining control of the country. Dorothee was approaching adolescence during World War II, her memories of those years clouded and disturbed by the hours spent in air raid shelters. She remembers with loathing her parents preoccupation with securing enough food for the family. She only wanted it all to end. Then came her adolescence and, finally, the end of the horrific war. She internalized the shame of her people, in the shadow of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, and felt it deep within her being. Reflecting on her formative years she would write, “I need this shame about my people; I do not want to forget anything, because forgetting nurtures the illusion that it is possible to be a truly human being without the lessons of the dead.”
Dorothee’s parents were indifferent to religion, therefore it came as somewhat of a surprise that during her high school years she would take an active interest in the church and in the study of theology. She realized that enlightened liberals, such as her parents, had been helpless in the face of the atrocities, not even willing to take any kind of meaningful stand against what was unfolding in Germany during these years. At the same time, she found something irresistible in the powerless love of Jesus, and knew that Jesus’ vision, rightly interpreted, could form the matrix for her to live and believe and find a way forward in the aftermath of the holocaust.
Soelle’s theology, in a nutshell, was this: God is not so much an idea, or a being separate from and controlling the world; rather, God is a way of experiencing and participating in the world. God is a way of experiencing and interpreting the world. She knew that German soldiers wore belt buckles that proclaimed “God with us” and yet were so comfortable with putting people to death in gas chambers that they could then go home and settle back and comfortably listen to Bach. For Soelle, the Holocaust completely invalidated the whole concept of an all powerful God over and above the world who could idly stand by while such horrors occurred. Such an idea made God out to be no better than those German soldiers and, for her, such thinking could no longer be taken seriously. In place of this vertical understanding of the universe, with God controlling everything from above, Soelle offered a compelling vision of Jesus as God’s representative, as the Christ who suffers and dies with us. As Christ represents God, so are we to represent God to each other. Listen to these words of Dorothee Soelle as she expressed it:
I don’t as they put it “believe in god”
but to him (Jesus) I cannot say no hard as I try
take a look at him in the garden
when his friends ran out on him
his face wet with fear
and with the spit of his enemies.
him I have to believe
I find one can’t let him pay alone
for his hypothesis
so I believe him about god
the way one believes another’s laughter
his tears
or marriage
or no for an answer
that’s how you’ll learn
to believe him about life
promised to all
(Quotation marks and parenthetical words mine.)
This understanding of God as the divine presence in each one of us representative in Jesus as “the Christ” – this became the basis for Soelle’s theology of engagement in the social and political realms. She called for a “democratization of the mystical experience,” that a profound experience of God was available to all as we move out of our churches and cathedrals and encounter God by siding with those who have experienced the suffering of tragedy or injustice. God is not separate from creation, God is (quote) “bound into the web of life.” Jesus as the representative of God is the God who suffers with us, and thus God can only be understood, comprehended, and experienced as we participate in life, in the world of those who live in the shadows of tragedy, tyranny, and poverty.
Dorothee Soelle, the teen who wanted nothing more than to see an end to the deprivation, fear, and suffering of war, who bore the Holocaust shame of the German people, became a champion of liberation theology. She found a way forward. Liberation theology does not dwell on questions like “Does God exist?” or “Was Jesus God?” like most well educated, well fed Westerners, but the question for them is a much older one. Their question is – the question that informs their theology and their way of being in the world – is, “How do we justify a God of love and justice with all the suffering, cruelty, and injustice we experience and see all around us?” And their question is answered in the person of Jesus as they come to understand him from reading the gospels and what their faith in him involves as they come to understand his directives to his followers. They find in Jesus, “not a rationalization of why things are as they are, but rather act with a conviction that things need not be this way and that they can and will change.”
Perhaps too much time has passed since the Holocaust. History does that. It transmutes an awfulness that we feel internally and personally into mere words in a textbook. Six million Jews killed in Nazi extermination camps. The “tomb” that Dorothee Soelle visited in her imagination was called Auschwitz. Was called Dachau. What is the tomb called for us today? (pause)
On December 14, 2012 Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 children and 6 adults. The headlines were there for two, maybe three weeks. It’s happening so often in our country that the media coverage is now predictable. First, the details of the tragedy. Then pictures of the survivors tearfully embracing each other. Next the little memorials with teddy bears and flowers. Then the funerals. Then money for the victim’s families. Then the finger pointing. Then, our national attention drifts to something else. The next sensational headline.
What do we hear 3, 4 months later from Newtown Connecticut, if we hear anything at all? If you’re really paying attention, you’ll hear how the families of victims are dealing with this horror and senseless loss of our most precious blood. Some families had to move away. The empty bedroom, the path they drove to school every day were just too much. Many family members are still under intensive psychiatric care. Some are seeking legal recompense in the form of dollars.
But the few stories that grab my interest are the ones of families who found a way forward. One family was grateful for the care given at the school to their autistic child, his special education teacher cradling him in her arms as he died. This family has started a foundation to provide more services to autistic children. Another family of one of the victims has started a foundation to build a community center. Another has started a scholarship to honor an act of heroism by one of the school staff who tried to protect the children. Many families have become spokespersons for gun control legislation. Outside help in the form of money and well wishes – and there was ample supplies of these – must have been nice for all the families, but it would seem that these are the families who are beginning the process of healing. This healing is not coming from any outside source. Its coming from inside themselves. They are moving away from the emotional place where they put their loved one. Back into the world. The death of their child was meaningless, senseless. But they are recreating meaning out of the death, by the way they are moving forward.
He is not here. He is going ahead of you into Galilee.
I would close with some more of the poetic words of Dorothee Soelle, speaking of Jesus. As she found her way forward.
He Needs You
He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

Help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal
Dorothee Soelle


About lfhoward

Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Valdosta
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