Discovering Easter Joy—Mark 16.1-8

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

At Easter we should remember that anger and fear cannot win, but that joy can.

1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said 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. 7But 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.’ 8So 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 16.1-8

 

Biblical scholars have long recognized Mark 16:8 as the original ending of the Gospel. And to the modern reader, this is a profoundly unexpected ending. Where one might expect triumph and victory at the revelation of the risen Christ, one instead finds fear, terror. They say nothing, because “they were afraid.”

 

If this initial terror finds historical ground, then it was certainly not a fear that lasted. Whereas Mark’s gospel culminates in fear and terror, the subsequent gospel traditions will transfigure this resurrectional moment into an experience of profound joy and victory. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, turns the “terror and amazement” of Mark into “fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8). The Gospel of Luke culminates with the disciples returning to Jerusalem “with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53).

 

The extra-Biblical tradition likewise marks the resurrection as a moment not only of joy, but of victory. Traditional icons of the Harrowing of Hell, for example, invariably show Jesus triumphantly marching across the gates of hell—gates which have been torn from their hinges and thrown to the ground. For this ancient iconography, the resurrection is a victorious liberation of those who have been oppressed by death itself.

 

St. Augustine exemplifies this tradition, writing of the resurrection: “he died, but he vanquished death; in himself he put an end to what we feared; he took it upon himself and he vanquished it, as a mighty hunter he captured and slew the lion. Where is death? Seek it in Christ, for it exists no longer; but it did exist and now it is dead. O life, O death of death!” [St. Augustine, Sermon 233.3-4].

 

This triumphant march of joy, victory, and liberation can be hard to reconcile with present reality. It hardly seems that we live in a post-resurrectional world, a world marked by joy and victory. Rather, we live under a litany of injustices: Yemeni families are eviscerated by aerial barrages in a civil war without end. American students are cut down in their classrooms. Palestinians face harassment, summary execution, and illegal Israeli military courts. Syrian refugees continue to find doors closed to them. Indigenous Canadians face the constant threat of land confiscations.

 

We find it difficult to see victory in such a world. How are we to affirm with St. Paul that “death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)? Around every corner, in every newspaper, across every newsfeed, death seems to have found its victory; we feel only death’s sting.

 

Indeed, such a world seems to lead us into an ever-greater identification with the disciples of Mark 16. Gripped with fear and terror—and hopelessness—it is easier to flee and to remain silent.

 

To engage in contemporary political and justice work is therefore to face the ever-present possibility of burn-out. In a world where there is always more violence to oppose, more injustice to resist—“you always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11)—social engagement can feel like swimming upstream on a river without end. This reality highlights the imperative of celebration, victory, and joy. If we cannot learn to feast, then we cannot win.

 

But, it is perhaps here that those engaged in contemporary politics might perhaps have something to learn from the Christian tradition. For the people of God are anything but unfamiliar with suffering, fear, and hopelessness. From the Jewish expulsion from their land in the exile, to early Christians facing persecution and martyrdom—the tradition has certainly made space for mourning and lament. But, it has likewise created a space for joy.

 

Psalms of mourning sit side-by-side with psalms of victory. In this week’s lectionary, for example, we read that: “there are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: ‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; the right hand of the Lord is exalted” (Psalm 118:15-16). The Exodus narrative likewise concludes with Miriam’s song of victory: “sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:21). Paul celebrates with the church in Corinth, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

 

Certainly, these psalms and hymns were not understood as the end of the story. The race, to borrow Paul’s metaphor, is long. And yet, just as the victorious athlete celebrates each individual victory, not in order to forget the season, but with an eye toward the championship, so too must those who strive for justice learn to celebrate victories where we find them—no matter how insignificant or fleeting as they might feel.

 

What the Christian liturgical calendar teaches us is the necessary reciprocity of mourning and joy, of reflection on failure and celebration of victory. As Ecclesiastes teaches us, “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

 

Therefore, as we leave the time of Lent and enter into the Easter liturgical season this Sunday, may we enter it with a joyful heart, with a spirit of victory. And perhaps we might also remember the necessity of such joy in our political endeavors, because anger and fear cannot win, but joy can.

 

A passage from Emma Goldman’s autobiography is particularly prescient here. Condemned by a colleague for her enthusiastic participation in dancing, she reproaches him: “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it” [Emma Goldman, Living My Life, 56].

 

Or more simply, in the words of Rose Schneiderman: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

 

Therefore, let us celebrate our victories. On this Easter, let us be a movement of joy and resurrection, a movement of dancing, a movement of roses. And let us feast.

 

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Isaiah 25:6-9

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