I recently had the opportunity to travel to my undergrad institution on a student recruitment trip. During this trip I was able to preach during the college’s weekday chapel service. Despite the fact that I have lived, studied, and worked within a seminary community for the last seven years I had not actually written (not to mention preached!) a sermon since I was a senior at this very college… to say the least I was a bit nervous. As it turned out the sermon writing went well, and I also felt positively about the preaching experience. But even though the writing and preaching are over I can’t stop thinking about the topics I choose to speak about.
The scripture lesson I used was Luke chapter 24 verses 22-24 “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
These verses offer a quick recap of the Easter story that comes earlier in chapter 24 of Luke. The women go to the tomb with the spices that they have prepared, but when they arrive they discover that the stone has been rolled away and the body of their friend and teacher is not there. Instead, there are two men in dazzling clothes who ask the women “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
This version of the Easter story is not the version that Christians who follow the three year lectionary cycle heard on Easter Sunday. This year we greeted Easter with the gospel events from the book of Mark. Like many people the original ending of the book of Mark leaves me a bit uncomfortable. In Mark, again, the women go to the tomb with the prepared spices, the stone has been rolled away and the body is not there, in this account they are greeted by one young man in a white robe who tells them that Christ is not there but has been raised. This young man in white also tells them to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Christ is going ahead of them and they will see him in Galilee, just as Christ had told them. But, then there is verse 8… “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.”
Its that last little piece of the final verse of the entire book of Mark that leaves me more than a little uncomfortable… I mean obviously the women told someone, because we have three other canonical gospels where the story continues, not to mention hundreds of other writings, plus huge numbers of Christian communities all over the world in the here and now living out the legacy of this story, and so somehow, somewhere along the line the story was told, the tomb was empty. Even though this somewhat abrupt ending to the Gospel of Mark makes me a little uncomfortable it also happens to be my favorite version of the Easter story.
By ending with the empty tomb, rather than with a more physical and concrete conversation with the risen Christ, Mark highlights the both/and nature of faith. I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like for the women to come to the tomb on that day, taking the spices and materials necessary to prepare the body of their teacher and their friend. Not only are they in the midst of mourning their own personal loss their role as women within the society means that they have practical concerns to deal with on that morning. This body has been in the tomb three days… this is not going to be a good smell… and the stone large enough to block the entrance to the tomb will still be in place… how will they move such a large stone. To be dealing with all of these daily human thoughts and concerns and then to arrive only to find that the physical body and, on some level the Be-ing or presence, of the one you loved so much gone… what must these women have been feeling at that moment.
I love the way in which Mark’s gospel contrasts the loneliness and doubt of the empty tomb with the feelings of hope, joy and anticipation of seeing Christ again in Galilee. This point of intersection, this paradox is what I love the most about faith. I love the doubts and the questions and the conversations that Scripture and the Christian tradition inspire.
For me, faith is based in discernment, it is intellectually reasoned, and it is both physical and spiritual, and it is because of this that I can hold both the hope of the resurrection and the hope of new life over and against the doubts and the fear of that empty tomb. It is not in spite of these doubts and these fears that I hope in the resurrection, but because of them. I love that in so many cases, in so many ways, we can’t ever really be sure, we live in the in between reality of already and not yet. It is in the wrestling with these feelings of discomfort, with the doubts, and the questions, that we find God and that we find ourselves.
Dr. Katie M. Deaver, earned her Ph.D. in Feminist Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Deaver holds a B.A. in Religion and Music from Luther College in Decorah, IA, as well as MATS and Th.M. degrees from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation explored the connections between the Christian understanding of atonement theology and the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States. Her other areas of interest include the connection between power and violence, sexual ethics, and working toward the elimination of the oppression and exploitation of women and girls around the world.