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.


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