Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter Day


‘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 16.8

God is the author of Life, and death is an affront, a direct challenge to, the goodness and good rule of God.

The Christian faith stands or falls on the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in their Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John record multiple accounts of people encountering the risen Jesus. But Mark tells a different side to the story. Mark does not present us with Jesus, come forth from the tomb. Mark presents us with a group of women, disciples of Jesus, come forth from the tomb. And these women have a problem.

If we are to understand the problem they have, we need to understand how God has ordered the world.

First, the world is divided into things that are holy and things that are common. This is not a moral distinction. Most things are common, but some things, and some people, are set apart by and to and for the Lord God. Six days are common, but the Sabbath is holy. Mount Horeb, where God instructed Moses, is holy; as is Mount Zion, and the Temple in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself. We understand this. We have an island, off our coast in the northeast of England, known as Holy Island. We consider our churches holy.

Second, the world is divided into things that are ritually clean and things that are ritually unclean. Again, this is not a moral distinction. Most things are clean, most of the time. But things that convey something of death—that affront to God—are unclean. So, those who have a skin condition that makes them look like a corpse are unclean. Anything related to reproduction and childbirth makes someone unclean, not because these natural things are bad, but because of the high mortality rate for babies and mothers (not only in the ancient world). And contact with a corpse, or a tomb, makes one unclean. Again, this is not a moral failing: indeed, there was a moral obligation to bury the dead.

Ritually clean things in either holy or common places pose no problem. Ritually unclean things in common places pose no problem in themselves, as long as the person involved follows the God-given instruction for purifying themselves from death in all its forms, usually through a combination of time and washing. But ritually unclean things coming into even unwitting contact with holy places is a problem because death is an affront to God, and the mortal who carries death into the presence of God may die as a result. When death comes into the presence of God, God kicks it out; and when God kicks out death, any mortal who gets caught in the moment is in trouble. (Alternatively, when people persist in bringing unclean things into holy space, God may choose to withdraw, which is also bad for humans.)

[Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death is really good on the holy/common clean/unclean matrix—he uses the terms holy & profane, purity & impurity—but, somewhat strangely to my mind, does not deal with the immediate implications of Jesus’ death for his disciples.]

The women have a problem. They have gone to the tomb to anoint the corpse. This is, indeed, a moral obligation, but one that will make them ritually unclean for seven days, and anyone else they come into contact with ritually unclean for a day. They go to the tomb—which is outside the city boundary because the dead cannot be within the holy perimeter—but this isn’t a problem in itself. It just means that they cannot enter holy space. Second Temple Jews held a range of interpretations: all were of the view that someone made ritually unclean by contact with a corpse or tomb could not enter the temple; some were of the opinion that such a person could not enter the city around the temple. Jesus’ mother and her relatives were devout temple-based Jews. As such, they would want to ensure maximum distance between uncleanliness and the temple. They were already ritually unclean, having assisted Joseph and Nicodemus in taking Jesus’ corpse down from the cross and preparing it for its hasty burial; and—unlike the male disciples, who kept their distance at the cross, and who were staying in an upper room in the city—they were likely already keeping outside the city, perhaps with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in nearby Bethany.

None of this poses a problem, until the angel instructs them to go and tell Peter and the other disciples with him that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee.

The women have a problem. Our English translation tells us that they are gripped by terror and amazement. The word translated ‘terror’ conveys the anxiety of having a religious duty and not knowing how one will be able to discharge it. The word translated ‘amazement’ has a universal meaning of being displaced from one’s usual place: it can refer to the displaced mind, but also conveys the sense of being displaced outside the city, as those who were ritually unclean on account of contact with a corpse were required to do.

How can they bring a message to Peter when they cannot return to Jerusalem for seven days? Remember, Jesus’ mother and her relatives are devout, temple-focused Jews; and, moreover, Jesus insisted that he had not come to abolish the law but to bring it to completion or fulfilment. So, they tell no one, in the immediate; though they will find a way to get the message to Peter. (And, having gone to the tomb himself, Peter will return to the upper room. On the matter of whether tomb contact excluded you from all Jerusalem or only the temple itself, it is likely that the Galilean disciples had a different view from Jesus’ relatives; though even Peter hesitates to enter the tomb and thus make himself ritually unclean.)

Indeed, Jesus does not abolish the law, but breaks the power of death that required the law to be put in place for our protection. And though we still experience death, this has real implications. The presence of death in our lives no longer separates us from God, even temporarily. So, whereas the Jews buried their dead outside the city wall, away from the holy, Christians came to bury their dead immediately surrounding their churches, as close as possible to—and even within—their holy places. More than this, the bereaved draw close to God. Jesus did not die instead of us, but ahead of us, so that we might follow, unafraid, held every step of the way by God.

Jesus is so infectiously holy that, through his death and resurrection, he makes even death—the thing that separates us from God, albeit temporarily—holy. So now, rather than separating us from God, death—our own, or any death that we must face—is an open door into God’s presence. Into the presence of Love, the author of Life. A door no one wants to go through, but that all can go through, if they trust that God, revealed to us in Jesus, is good.

And that, in my opinion, is good news.


Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Thursday


Each spring, one of the toughest endurance races in the world is held in the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. Participants attempt to complete a five-lap route—or, as our American cousins pronounce it, rout—which is, in total, between 100 and 130 miles. The exact route changes each year, but roughly one third is on forest trails, the other two-thirds off-trail. The total ascent and descent are equivalent to going from sea-level to the summit of Mount Everest and back. Twice. The five loops must be completed within a strict 60-hour cut-off. And the American pronunciation rout is fitting: each year, 35-40 of the world's best endurance runners take part. To date, since 1989, a total of 20 people have finished (three more than once). If you aren’t a runner, it is possible that you heard of the Barkley Marathons for the first time this year, as British runner Jasmin Paris became the first woman ever to finish.

The race is legendary, with its own mythic lore. Jo and I have watched two documentaries on it, and we are in awe. Two things stand out. The first is that it simply isn’t possible to know what it is like to take part in the Barkley Marathons unless you have taken part. Even if you are a seasoned ultramarathon runner. Which I am not. The second is that as participants drop out of the race, they become the most amazing support team for those who remain. No assistance is permitted except in camp, between loops, and there, the most experienced ultra runners in the world are willing one another on. They are on hand with advice, to wash legs shredded by briars, to pierce blisters so the other can carry on.

Both these things speak to me of the Christian life.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, the Church gathers to hear again the old, old story of the Israelites eating a hurried meal before heading out into the wilderness at night, walking pole in hand, in their escape from Egypt (this, too, is mirrored by the Barkley Marathons, where, between loops, runners take on hurried food for energy) and the less old story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

As Jesus moves from disciple to disciple—those who have been with him on the Way—Peter is aghast that his greatest hero might stoop to serve him. But Jesus responds: You don’t understand, don’t perceive what I am doing, in this precise moment; but then [somewhat ambiguously and unhelpfully translated as ‘later’ in some English translations] you will.

What is it that Jesus wants Peter and the others to understand? That they were to delight in one another and prefer one another to themselves. That is to say, when we look out for ourselves, we are alone; but when we look out for one another, we have a tribe on our side. As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

And Jesus says, it isn’t possible to know, to perceive, to ‘get’ what it means to love one another through observing others—let alone by reading about it or watching a documentary. You only get to understand this by doing it. Only those who have attempted to run the Barkley Marathons know what the Barkley Marathons are about.

The only way to know what it is to follow Jesus, with others who are following Jesus, is by following Jesus together. Not as an idea or a philosophy, not as head-knowledge. You discover it in your hands and feet, in aching limbs.

I am never going to run 130 miles around the mountainous forests of Tennessee inside 60 hours. I wouldn’t even try. But I have been walking with Jesus for over fifty years, and I have no intention of dropping out now. I have yet to reach the cut-off point. Let’s go again.