There are a lot of people who aren’t sleeping very well right now. Maybe you’re one of them. I know I have been.
When things are uncertain, we don’t know who might get sick or when, and we don’t know how bad it will be, and we worry about not just our own health but that of our loved ones that are at higher risk, it messes with our sleep. We might go to sleep, and then wake up two or three hours later to stew and fret (and we all know that even problems that seem to be manageable in the daylight look insurmountable at 3 a.m.); or maybe we don’t go to sleep at all, but toss and turn—and then we worry about not sleeping, on top of whatever else we’re worrying about.
Neither the Gospels, nor Paul, nor any of the creeds tell us anything about the second day, except one sentence in Luke: “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56b). We know that the first day, Friday, was the day when Jesus was condemned to death, crucified, died, and was buried. And we wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t believe that dawn of the third day brought Jesus’ resurrection. But we don’t hear anything about Saturday.
Given what we’re dealing with right now, I think maybe we can imagine what that day was like. Jesus’ followers obviously felt a great sense of loss, just like many of us who are losing our jobs, the routines that made our days make sense—or worse, losing loved ones without really even being able to say good-by, because of the rules that keep even close family from the bedsides of the sick; they had given up everything, in many cases, to follow him.
Some of them literally had no real lives to go back to. Mary Magdalene, for instance, had been tormented by seven demons before she met Jesus. What kind of life did she live then? Why would she want to resume her so-called “normal” life?
Same for Bartimaeus, the blind man from Jericho whose sight Jesus restored. Previously he had been a beggar. Chances are he hadn’t learned a trade, depending on when it was that he lost his sight (we know he wasn’t blind from birth because of one word in his response when Jesus asked what he wanted Jesus to do for him: “Let me see again”). As a now able-bodied man, he couldn’t go back to begging, and I’m sure he didn’t want to; but he had no other way of supporting himself. What was life going to mean for him with Jesus gone?
I doubt Matthew was going to want to go back to collecting the taxes demanded by the imperial power that had killed his teacher and friend.
Right now, without our usual activities, whether those include going to work or school, or even meeting our friends for morning coffee, we have too much time to think. The disciples would have had the same problem that Saturday. It was the Sabbath, and there was no work they could do; the Law prohibited anything that wasn’t absolutely essential to save a life.
Most of them were visitors in Jerusalem, there for the Passover festival, there because they had followed Jesus there; they were staying somewhere, maybe all together in the upper room where they had eaten the Passover meal on Thursday night, or maybe in various places in the city, with friends or kinfolk. They couldn’t go anywhere, and they couldn’t do anything.
And they were afraid. If Rome could crucify Jesus, then none of us is safe, I’m sure they thought. That would have been turning over and over in their minds as they hid themselves away in the homes or guest houses where they were staying, unable to work and afraid to go anywhere. They couldn’t work, couldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t sleep, were scared and unsure what might happen next—sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it.
For awhile there we were hearing quite a lot of push to get things open by today, so we could fill churches and gather with our families to celebrate this highest of holidays. But reality set in pretty quickly, and it became very clear—to most of us, at least—that we weren’t just going to flip a switch and have a normal Easter, and then have everything go back to normal. It wasn’t going to happen by today.
Maybe, if we stay safe at home and it helps slow the spread of the virus, we might be back together in person after a few more weeks. Maybe by Pentecost, which is the last Sunday in May this year. I don’t know. And even then, will we get back to what we consider to be “normal”? Or is that gone forever, like the days and months the disciples had spent wandering with and learning from Jesus before that terrible Friday?
We just don’t know, and I think that not-knowing is what is making sleep hard for us. The lack of routine is disorienting us; the enforced idleness is giving us too much time to think and fret. And we can’t go and do the things we want to do—like put on a fancy new Easter dress (and maybe a hat) and go to a packed church to hear trumpet fanfares and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, a—-le-lu-ia,” followed by a fancy dinner, perhaps of ham and cheesy potatoes.
I think because of all that, we’re in a position to enter into the Easter story as Mark tells it in a way we couldn’t before.
If you pick up your Bible and look at the 16th chapter of Mark, you’re going to discover that it goes on beyond where I stopped reading today. But you’ll probably also see how what comes after verse 8 is bracketed, and maybe there’s a footnote saying that the bracketed stuff probably wasn’t in Mark’s original version, which most likely ended with verse 8. And the way verse 8 is constructed in Greek, it could be translated as stopping in mid-sentence: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. They said nothing to anyone; they were afraid, you see, for…”
It’s no wonder people felt compelled to add to Mark’s original ending—it’s no ending at all, really. It leaves everything hanging in the air, not even finishing the thought. It doesn’t settle our uncertainty with an appearance of the risen Jesus, as the other Gospels do; we’re just left standing there saying, “…wait…what?”
This Easter isn’t a thing like what we’re used to. We miss those packed churches, those fancy new Easter dresses and maybe hats, those trumpet fanfares and Alleluias. Instead, like the disciples on Saturday, we are at home, and a lot of the reason is because of legitimate and quite healthy fear.
I don’t know if it will help or not to know this, but there were no packed churches or trumpet fanfares on the first Easter. There were fearful people at home, whether in their own homes or guests in someone else’s homes, pondering the fine line between safe at home and stuck at home. A few women went out on an essential errand—Jesus was buried so quickly on Friday that his body hadn’t been properly anointed, and that had to be done or things were going to get pretty ugly, and pretty stinky, pretty quick. But everybody else was at home, understandably fearful.
And even though Jesus had been teaching them for quite awhile by the time they got to Jerusalem that he was going to be arrested and crucified and was going to die, and then rise again on the third day, it didn’t compute. Going beyond Peter’s perfectly reasonable objection that the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die, there was no way whatsoever for their minds to get around that “rising from the dead” bit. Things like that don’t really happen, do they?
Well, modern medical technology is sometimes able to bring people back from cardiac arrest, or to revive someone after they’ve drowned—but even now, even with all the knowledge and skill at our disposal, we can’t do anything to bring someone back to life after they’ve already been buried. (John 11 tells us Jesus did it—but if Jesus was the one who was dead, what then?)
Jesus may have told them three times, but they didn’t hear him even once.
So the women walked toward the tomb, wondering who they could get to open it for them so they could do what they were going there to do—but when they got there, it was already open. And there was someone in there, but it wasn’t Jesus, and they weren’t dead. It was a young man, ambiguous like the one Jacob wrestled with at the Jabbok ford in Genesis 32, and the first words he said were the first words that angels pretty much always say: “Do not be afraid.” And he said, “Jesus isn’t here.”
He gave them a job to do: “Go tell the disciples—and Peter—to meet him in Galilee.” He singled out Peter because these women, and the rest of the disciples, needed to know that Peter’s denial wasn’t the end of his story…as Matthew and Luke (in Acts) tell us betrayal was the end of Judas’ story.
Maybe Judas’ story didn’t have to end there, either.
But Mark says these women didn’t do what the young man told them to do (at least not at first). They fled from the tomb and said nothing to anyone; they were afraid, you see, for…
But it’s not hard to imagine what happened when they got back to wherever it was that they were staying. It would have been clear they were shaken by something, and eventually somebody was going to pry it out of them.
We know something like this had to have happened, because the story doesn’t end with three women stunned into silence, even though Mark’s Gospel does. The story went on, went on to Pentecost, on to Damascus, on to Antioch, on to Asia and Greece and even to Rome—and it still goes on, and now it’s our story.
Our story has a strange chapter now, one in which we’re all at home watching Easter services on screens instead of together in the sanctuary, but the story hasn’t ended and it isn’t going to end just because we’ve been put under a stay-at-home order.
So maybe we can’t be together right now; maybe we can’t meet up with someone face-to-face and tell them, “The Lord is risen indeed!” But we can tell the ones in our own houses, and we can pick up the phone and write it in e-mails and letters and post it on social media.
The Lord is risen indeed! and now it’s our story: ours to tell, and ours to live.