Fear and Wonder

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.  Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”  But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”  Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. 

Mark 16:1-8

In his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, William Coffin, the former university chaplain at Yale, describes an Easter service that takes place each year on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Thousands gather for this sunrise service each year, and it includes some spectacular elements. During this service, when Matthew 28:2 is read (“And suddenly there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone”) a giant boulder is heaved over the rim of the canyon. As it goes crashing down the rocky face into the Colorado River, a two thousand-voice choir suddenly bursts into the Hallelujah chorus. Talk about pulling out all the stops: Easter inspires spectacular celebration unlike any other Christian holiday. Coffin asks, “Too dramatic? Not, if despite all appearances, we live in an Easter world.”

And yet, the first time Easter was remembered, in the first gospel ever written, Easter isn’t anywhere near that dramatic. There are no two-thousand voice choirs, no falling boulders, no lightning flashes, no Hallelujah choruses. Instead of the spectacular, there is fear and wonder.

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.…And the story ends. Of course, the other gospel writers fill us in with many more vivid details about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. And of course, a later Christian scribe even added a longer ending to Mark, no doubt out of discomfort over such an abrupt conclusion. But in the first telling of the story, this was how it ended. We hear the announcement that Jesus has risen, but the man himself doesn’t even make a cameo appearance.

Almost everyone is illiterate 2,000 years ago, so the gospel of Mark was not written to be read, but heard. It would have been performed orally, like a play. Imagine sitting through an entire reading of the gospel of Mark, all 16 chapters, and finally getting to the end, expecting fireworks, explosions, Jesus busting out of the tomb with a red cape like Superman. Instead, the first telling of the story ended with a group of marginalized women shell-shocked and bewildered by such news. They are too shell-shocked to speak, so full of fear and wonder are they. “Make of it what you want,” Mark seems to goad us. “Make up your own mind.” The End.

I can’t say for certain, but I have come to believe that Mark ends the story in this way because he realizes that this is the most logical conclusion of the resurrection story. It is the most reasonable response to Easter then and now. That response was and is fear and wonder.

Perhaps there is no more relevant message to our world today. After all, we live in an age of the mass suppression of fear and wonder.

There is a very popular comedian named Louis C.K. with a famous bit about airplanes. He builds his comedy sketch around the fact that it is always our first tendency after disembarking from an airplane to complain. “I had to wait on the Tarmac for forty minutes.” “The flight was delayed for forty minutes.” “The in-flight internet was slow.” “The seat was cramped.” I have made all of these complaints hundreds of times without ever stopping to think about the truth: I am sitting in a cramped seat in the middle of the sky, hurtling through the stratosphere like a Greek god, suspended between heaven and earth on a giant piece of supernatural steel. I complain about being delayed thirty minutes. It took Lewis and Clark two and half years to get to the Pacific Ocean and half the crew died along the way. It takes us five hours. Oh and that internet that takes an extra second to get to the next webpage, it’s magically communicating right now to a satellite hanging in outer space. His punch line to all of our complaining? “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

This is the message of Easter. It is the message of Mark’s ending that leaves us hanging on the edge of our seats. It is the message that sparks fear and wonder. “Everything’s amazing.” Christ is risen. We are called to fear and wonder.

What sort of lifestyle is this? What does fear and wonder look like in our everyday realities? I offer three suggestions.

First, to live in fear and wonder is to acknowledge that I do not have it all figured out. Turn on the television, visit the Barnes and Noble, pay for any manner of day-long seminar, and you’ll find a host of preachers, self-help gurus and politicians who have figured out the meaning of life on our behalf. Just vote for this party, just buy this book, just join this fitness plan and you’ll have the life of your dreams, exactly as it was meant to be. The Church, unfortunately, has all too often represented exhibit A of this kind of belligerence, preferring our fundamentalism and our certitudes to fear and wonder. But the women…fear and wonder led them to do the opposite; to keep their mouths shut. If Mark wanted to create a myth to convince people that Jesus had raised from the dead, this is a very poor way to write it. The women not only never expected Jesus’ resurrection, they hadn’t the slightest clue what any of it meant. Fear and wonder starts where our own understanding ends. It is in that space, I believe, where God dwells.

An Easter text if ever there was one is found in Ecclesiastes 5:2. “Do not be quick with your mouth. Do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” In the face of such holy mystery, perhaps we Christians could take a cue from the women and not be afraid to keep our mouths shut a little more often.

Second, to live in fear and wonder is to embrace bewilderment. About a month ago, I was leaving my house to go to work early in the morning, and I noticed an envelope on the doorstep with what looked like a child’s handwriting on the outside that said “The Rice Family.” I assumed it was a birthday invitation for my little girls from one of the children in the neighborhood, so without opening it I put it on the dining room table and went to work. My wife messaged me a few hours later and said, “Why is there an envelope addressed to our family with 7 $100 bills in it and no note.” To this day I have no idea. It might be a purposeful story if we were about to lose our house or have the gas shut off but that is not the case. We had no urgent need for $700. The money sits in my desk drawer today. It kind of feels like blood money, like some sort of Abrahamic test from God. I can’t bring myself to spend it, because I did nothing to earn it.

And maybe that is the lesson. I so quickly divide life up into stuff that I think I’ve earned and stuff that I think I’ve been given. The message of the gospel is that I have earned nothing. Every good thing in my life has been mysteriously dropped off, addressed to me by a God who is just so full of joy and trickery, that he puts stacks of riches on my front porch, and disappears without a trace.

So like the women in Mark 16, I am trembling and bewildered. Trembling and bewildered that I have married so far up. Trembling and bewildered at the sight of my children on their bikes in the coul-de-sac or asleep in their beds. Trembling and bewildered at the wonderful sojourners all around that He has allowed me to call friends. Trembling and bewildered that I get to wake up in the morning and live one more day. Every breath is miracle. Every bit of light that fills my eyes is a gift. Everything’s amazing. Everything’s amazing. Everything’s amazing. He is risen.

Against those voices on the cable news channels who would say the world is going to hell in a handbasket (as if Vladimir Putin stands at the center of the controlling narrative of the world), the voice of God which rang out 6 times over creation in Genesis 1 is still ringing: “And God saw that it was good.”  The reason our society is so enamored with celebrities, entertainment, and Apple computers, is that we are hardwired for bewilderment. That need is not met in the “empire of illusion” that our culture has created like the false world of the Matrix. It is met most primally in Easter and the resurrection of Christ.

Finally, to live in fear and wonder is to be a little nervous about how God might shake me up; me and my categories. Why are the women afraid? Because they realize that whatever on earth the empty tomb might mean, life is never going to be the same. The way they are comfortable thinking about death, suffering, closure, eternity…it is all up for grabs now.

How much easier Christianity would be without Easter! It would be so palatable, so respectable. If only Jesus died a martyr’s death and was laid to rest at some marble-walled memorial center in Jerusalem. We could visit the center, look through its museum about the things he said and did and the ways he changed the world. We could gaze at his coffin with one of those eternal gas flames burning and a bronze plaque of one of his more famous sayings. We could take our children there and tell them about this inspiring figure of history who taught us so much about ourselves and who changed history with his teachings and the way he lived his life. That would be nice, and respectable, and not costly at all. That would be safe.

In C.S. Lewis’s famous allegorical novel, The Chronicles of Narnia, the young child Susan inquires about the Christ figure in the novel, Aslan the lion, in a conversation with Mr. Beaver:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Easter, in the end, is not just some feel good, self-helpy, abstract message about feathers, and peaches, and cream, and butterfly kisses, and hope, and optimism. It is the very unsafe message that God has gone to unimaginable lengths to capture our hearts and to fully claim His ownership over the world. He has invaded. He has assaulted. He has blown every false god (and they are all around us and in us) to smithereens. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Because this God is so dangerous that he defeated death and he is still dangerous enough to defeat even us.

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” May we receive that same Easter gift of fear and wonder.

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