In the church I grew up in, we had a woman who wrote the most moving plays and pageants. One year, people of all ages came together and put on a pageant she had written for Maundy Thursday. I was pretty young, but I had a role as one of the people waving palm branches in the Palm Sunday celebration. The pageant followed Jesus on his triumphant ride through Jerusalem, to the upper room where we heard from each of the disciples, and ended with Jesus on the cross. The final moment of the play was in complete darkness, and the sound of thunder echoed through the silent sanctuary. The ending of that service in the dark with the roaring thunder unsettled me deeply. It made me tremble inside. Even though I was young, and even though I had only a minor part in the production, the experience stayed with me.
But, something unintentional happened as a result of that final scene. Word got back to our pastor that several children who had been in attendance were devastated that Jesus had died. They went home heartbroken, and nothing their parents could say would assure them that things turned out all right in the end.
That Easter Sunday morning, our pastor invited all of the children to come forward for the children’s lesson, as he did every Sunday. We gathered around him on the floor, and he sat on the bottom step leading up to the chancel. He spoke kindly and compassionately.
“How many of you were here on Maundy Thursday to see our play?”
All the kids raised their hands.
“The ending was very sad, wasn’t it?”
And a little child said, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
There was silence in the congregation.
Suddenly, that same child jumped up and yelled out, “It’s Jesus! He’s alive!” and ran toward the back of the sanctuary. The man who had played Jesus in the Maundy Thursday pageant was standing in the back of the room, dressed in a brilliant white robe. He walked down the aisle, sat with us kids, and explained that he had been playing the part of Jesus in the play, but that the real Jesus had risen from the dead. The children hugged him. He read them the story of the resurrection from the Bible, and invited the kids to ask questions about what he read to them.
“It’s Jesus! He’s alive!”
I can still hear the joy in that little one’s voice as clearly as if it had been said just today. Jesus is alive!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Through the season of lent, we journeyed together through the Dark Wood. We discovered strange gifts in unlikely places – gifts of uncertainty, emptiness, being thunderstruck, getting lost, temptation, disappearing, and misfits. We learned that our failures can be fertile ground for learning and growth. Our weaknesses can provide opportunities for discernment and self-discovery. Or, as Richard Rohr so wisely said, “Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.” I have found that to be true in my journey through the Dark Wood. I wonder if it has been true for you, too.
This morning, we are looking together at Mark’s account of the resurrection. It is short and filled with questions. Mark’s account begins with the women getting up early to go to the tomb. On their journey they ask, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” That seems a pretty important question, don’t you think? The stone would have been impossible for the women to move without assistance, and yet they journeyed to the tomb anyway. They brought with them spices so that they could anoint the body of Jesus, even though they would be unable to do so without some kind of outside intervention. I love the way hymn writer P.C. Croll put it:
Who shall roll the stone away?
Thus the pious women spoke,
As they went at break of day,
While each heart with anguish broke;
Though the way was dark throughout,
Though fond hope was mixed with doubt,
Yet an impulse made them brave—
Holy love led to His grave.
The women arrived at the tomb, and saw that it was already open. Before they had a chance to verbalize the questions they must have had in their minds, a young man dressed in white spoke 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.”
And what did they do? Mark says they “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” They went to the tomb, filled with questions and uncertainty, and they left the tomb amazed and terrified. Not quite the triumphant Easter account we might expect, and yet we know they did not remain silent. Eventually the encounter these women had at the tomb was shared, not just with the disciples, but throughout the world. Eventually someone pushed the fear aside and shared the good news. But, our reading ends with the fear and the silence.
When we’ve walked through the Dark Wood and emerge out into the light, where do we go next? In some way, though the Wood was dark, we became familiar and comfortable with our surroundings. The open air and bright light of resurrection leaves us with so many possibilities, so much awe and wonder, so great a possibility for rebirth and renewal that we can be left terrified.
So, where do we go from here? We’ve journeyed through lent and the Dark Wood, and we’ve come out on the other side – face-to-face with resurrection. We’ve peered into the tomb, and fled in amazement and fear. What are our next steps? Where do we go from here?
Mark’s brief, lackluster account of the resurrection gives us at least two points we can mark on the map of our spiritual journeys – a starting point, and a scenic overlook. First, Mark 16 confronts the reality that sometimes we are too afraid to begin, too afraid to speak, and too afraid to step beyond what we know and begin the journey to rebirth and new life. Sometimes, even when we are beginning something new and wonderful, we are too afraid and uncertain to take the first steps. We back away – or maybe even run – and wonder if what we’ve seen or experienced is real. I find tremendous comfort in Mark’s account because even though the women fled in fear, they eventually spoke out. And, it makes me wonder if their silence simply created more room for God to speak. I wonder if, as they reflected on what they had seen and experienced, God continued to speak until they were ready to listen.
I feel for the women who were at the tomb on that first Easter morning. They didn’t see Jesus, only a stranger who told them even stranger things. They were likely disoriented by their grief, and couldn’t process anything that was going on. And who could blame them? No proof. No evidence. No Jesus speaking their name. Just, “Go and tell.” They were terrified. And they didn’t tell anyone…at first. When we are confronted by things too wonderful for comprehension, when we are invited into the overflowing love of abundant life in Christ, we may be too afraid to begin. God can speak into the silence, and perhaps we will eventually be able to hear.
We may begin at the point of fear, but the most exciting part about the question “Where do we go from here?” is that the answer isn’t the same for everyone. When I was in fourth and fifth grade, I loved to read (still do!), and I absolutely loved getting to go to the library and checking out Choose Your Own Adventure books. Do you remember those?
In a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you are given choices to make. Choose one action, and something will happen to you. Choose something else, and your journey ends up in a completely different place. I used to read the same Choose Your Own Adventure book over and over until I had exhausted every possible combination of choices. Mark doesn’t give us a clear, satisfying ending to the story. He doesn’t give us a detailed account of the first witnesses to the resurrection going out and telling the disciples. Mark doesn’t wrap up the story neatly for us because we are invited to enter into the story ourselves. I love the way Kathryn Stenta said it this week. She said that Mark doesn’t give us an ending because “we are the ending.”
We are the ending – you and me – as we stand at the scenic overlook and discern where God is calling us to go. Our spiritual lives may follow different courses. We may take different paths in the Choose Your Own Adventure of our life in Christ. We may begin with fear and silence, but as God continues to speak and move and act, eventually we will be propelled forth through the power of the Holy Spirit to embrace the path that is ahead of us.
We may be over-eager, misguided, or uncertain as we follow Jesus. We may veer off the path, or find ourselves questioning and wondering if we should head back. The good news for all of us is that God continues to work in and through us, despite our doubts, our fears, our uncertainties, and our worries. God continues to speak into the silence, into our trembling until we go forth from the Dark Wood. And, even when we are too afraid to believe it, Christ is risen – he is risen indeed! Alleluia! Thanks be to God!