When the day of rest had ended, Mary Magdalene, James’s mother Mary, and Salome bought preservatives to go and embalm him, and early Sunday morning, at sunrise, went off to the tomb.
They’d been wondering amongst themselves who would roll the stone away from the mausoleum entrance. But when they arrived the stone, such a very large stone, had already been rolled back. And as they entered they saw a young man wearing a white robe sitting to the right, and they nearly jumped out of their skin.
But the man said to them, “Don’t worry. You’re looking for Jesus from Nowheresville, who was crucified. He’s been restored. He’s not here. Look, that’s the spot where they put him. But go now and tell his students, and especially Peter, that he’s on his way to Galilee ahead of you. You all will find him there, just like he told you.”
But they went out, fleeing in shock and awe from the mausoleum. They were so afraid they said nothing to anyone.
The First Gospel’s ending is the most difficult of the four gospel endings. So difficult, people tried several times to make up better endings for it.
The reason it’s so difficult, though, is that it’s the most realistic. The women come to the grave. Instead of Jesus, they find a stranger. They run away. End of story. No explanation. No angels. No lights or earthquakes. No other-worldly visions of Jesus or of anyone else. Just a man in a plain white robe saying, “There’s nothing to see here. Go home.” There is not a whit that is extra-worldly or fantastically magical about this. Nothing here that even a hardened skeptic would say is impossible.
It’s not difficult at all to affirm the plausibility of the story. What’s difficult is to come to terms with the hard truth that resurrection is emphatically not about some other guy coming back to life. It’s about whether we will get a life! What we want is a happy ending with all the loose ends tied together, all life’s questions answered, and salvation handed to us as a done deal. What the First Gospel gives us is an open question, and marching orders to go back home and meet Jesus.
For Jesus, “it was finished” on Good Friday, but for the rest of us, the story continues. The only guarantee is that if we will go home and look for Jesus, we’ll somehow meet him there. The whole First Gospel is the story of where the 2nd generation disciples found Jesus when they went to look for him, and what they found him doing.
So the question for disciples, then and now, is: Are we following orders? Are we going home to look for Jesus? And when we do, where do we meet him? What is he up to? What gospel (what good news) will you write with your life?
As they approached the Capital, at the house of unripe figs and Bethany near Olive Mountain, he told two of his students, “Go into town ahead, and just as you arrive, you’ll find a colt tied there. Nobody has ever ridden it before, but untie it and bring it back. If anyone asks you what you’re doing, tell them, ‘the Master needs it and will return it when he’s done with it.’”
So they went off and found the colt in the road, tied to a front gate. As they untied it, some of the people standing around there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” When the students told them what Jesus had said, they let them go with it. The students brought the colt to Jesus and put their coats on it, and Jesus got on.
Some people started throwing their coats down on the road in front of him. Others cut leafy branches from the fields and spread them out along the road. Then, some went in front of him, and others behind, shouting out,
God save the King! We love the new God-sent savior! We love the new King of the Old Empire! God, the Almighty, save the King!
So Jesus entered the Capital, and went into the National Cathedral. By the time he’d looked around at everything, it was late, so he went back to Bethany with the twelve.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Mark’s version of this story is how anti-climactic it is. All the excitement of the parade, the crowds chanting, the road strewn with coats and branches – it all leads up to, well, nothing. Jesus looks around, and then turns around and returns to Bethany.
Whatever the disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.
Their agenda is a coup d’état. Jesus’ agenda is to scope the place out for a teach-in.
Their agenda is a revolution that will sweep away one empire and replace it with – a new empire. Jesus’ agenda is a revolution that will replace empires altogether with a humanity in which everyone is included.
Their agenda is to co-opt God to legitimate their vision of utopia. Jesus’ agenda is to realize the divine image that lives in every person.
So, at the end of the day, after all the excitement, nothing happens. The expectations are utterly unmet. This is indeed the beginning of the end, where the unmet false expectations turn the crowd’s adulation to disappointment, and finally to bloodthirsty anger.
It’s fine to have great expectations. But what happens when your expectations go unmet? Do you turn to thoughts (and actions) of vengeance, or does it cause you to consider whether your expectations were what they should have been to begin with?
For churches that choose to observe the Sunday before Easter as Passion Sunday (rather than Palm Sunday), the power of the liturgy is held, not so much within the exposition, but in the hearing of the sordid tale of Jesus’ journey to the cross as a whole story. From Mark’s gospel, here it is. How you make this come alive again is up to you – and reliving the gospel is, after all, the whole point.
Two days before the Passover and the festivities that accompanied it, the CEOs and bureaucrats determined to find a way to make Jesus disappear and kill him. They reasoned that if they did it during the festivities, it would likely cause the rabble to start a riot.
Jesus was at Bethany in Simon’s house. (Simon was a leper.) While they were eating diner, a woman came with a bottle of Clive Christian perfume. She smashed the jar and poured it all over his head. In anger, several of the company protested, “Why was this perfume wasted like that? We could have sold that for more than $200,000! Think how much we could have given to the poor with that!” And they excoriated her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why are you berating her? She’s done me a great service! You’ll always have poor folk with you, and you can always be kind to them. But I’m not always going to be here for you. She’s just doing what she could to help. Now I’m ready to go to my grave. Seriously, wherever people tell this story all over the world, people will tell this part. And they’ll remember her.”
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went to the CEOs to make arrangements to rat Jesus out to them. When they heard it, they were ecstatic, and promised to pay him. So Judas began to look for an opportunity to rat Jesus out.
On the first day of the Great Festival, the day when the Festival Lamb is butchered for the feast, Jesus’ students asked him, “Where do you want to go, so we can get the place ready for you for the feast?” So he sent two of the students, saying, go into the city. A man with a water cooler will meet you there. Follow him, and where he goes into a house, tell the homeowner, ‘The teacher wants to know where the room for the feast is so that he can eat the feast with his students.’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Set up the feast for us there.” So the students went to the city and found everything as Jesus had said. They got ready for the feast.
Evening came, and Jesus arrived with the twelve. When they were all at their places eating, Jesus said, “I’m telling you, one of you is going to rat me out.” They all got upset and started protesting, “Not me! No way!” He said to them, “It’s going to be one of the twelve. Someone who’s sitting here sharing bread with me right now. It will happen to the authentic human, according to the script. But to the one who’s going to do the deed, woe. It would have been better for you if you’d never been born.”
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after commending it, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “This is my body. Take it.” Then he took a cup and after sharing his thanks, gave it to them. They all drank from it, and he told them, “The deal is, that’s my blood, poured out for many. I’m telling you, I won’t drink wine again until I drink it with you over the finish line.” After they sang a song, they left for Mount Olive.
Jesus said to them, “You’ll all abandon me. You know what they say: ‘When the shepherd falls, the sheep scatter.’ But after I’m raised up, I’ll see you in Galilee.” Peter told him, “Even if the rest abandon you, I won’t.” Jesus said, “I’m telling you, before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me three times.” Peter retorted, “I won’t disown you. Not even if I have to die with you.” All of them said the same.
They went to the oil press, where he said to his students, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter and James and John with him. He began to feel anguished and tense. He told them, “I feel so devastated, I just want to die. You stay here, and keep watch.” He went a little farther on where he slumped to the ground and prayed for the possibility of being spared from suffering: “Daddy, anything’s possible for you. Change my fate. But what I want doesn’t change what you’ve ordained.” He went back and found them asleep, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you sleeping? You can’t even stay on guard one hour. Stay awake and pray that you won’t cave in when it counts. Your spirit is eager, but you lack guts.” He went off again to pray, in the same way as before. And when he came back he found them sleeping, unable to keep their eyes open. They didn’t have anything to say. And then a third time he came back and said, “Are you still sleeping, getting yourselves rested up? Time’s up! The chosen one has been betrayed, given up to criminals. Get up, it’s time to go. See, my double-crosser is here now.”
Just then, as he was still talking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived from the CEO’s, bureaucrats, and lobbyists with a crowd carrying machetes and clubs. He’d given them a signal: “The one I kiss is the man you want. Arrest him, and have the police take him away.” When he arrived, he went straight to Jesus, saying, “Teacher!” And he kissed him. They cuffed him, and placed him under arrest. Someone standing nearby drew a machete and took a swing at the Chief Justice’s lackey, cutting off his ear. “So, you’ve come out with machetes and clubs, like an armed bandit?” Jesus said, “All that time I was right there with you in the Cathedral, and you didn’t arrest me there? This is so predictable. It’s all in the script.”
All his students ran away, but they caught hold of a certain young fellow who’d been following him, who wore nothing but a linen toga. He dropped the toga and ran off naked.
They took Jesus to the Chief Justice, where all the CEOs, lobbyists and bureaucrats were gathered. Peter followed from way back, right into the Chief Justice’s courtyard. He sat there with the police, warming himself by the fire. Now the CEOs and the whole Chamber of Commerce were there looking for witnesses against Jesus, to make a case for sentencing him to the death penalty. None came forward. Or rather, lots of people came forward, but they were lying and couldn’t get their stories straight. Some came and lied, “We heard him say, ‘I will take down the hand-built Cathedral, and build a virtual one.” But they couldn’t get their stories straight about even this. Finally, the Chief Justice stood and asked Jesus, “What do you have to say for yourself? What are they trying to say about you?” But Jesus remained silent, and refused to answer. So the Chief Justice asked again, “Are you the authentic human, the Son of all we hold dear?” Jesus said, “I am. And the authentic human will show you what real power is. You’ll soon know what ‘pie in the sky’ is about.” The Chief Justice tore off his robe, and said, “We don’t need witnesses. You’ve heard his arrogance yourselves. What say you?” All of them said he deserved to die. They filed by and spat on him. They tied a blindfold on him and punched him. “Tell us something now!” The police also, started beating him, and dragged him off.
Meanwhile, Peter was below in the courtyard. One of the Chief Justice’s slave girls came by, and when she saw him there warming himself, she recognized him and said, “You’re with that Nazarene man.” Peter denied it though. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I don’t understand why you’d say that.” And he left out the front courtyard. As he was leaving a rooster crowed. And the slave girl kept on saying to everyone around, “This man is one of them.” Again, he denied it. And still other bystanders also began saying, “You sure are one of his people. You’re a Galilean.” Peter began to curse and swear, “I don’t know the man you’re talking about.” As he did, the rooster crowed for the second time, and Peter remembered Jesus saying to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me three times.” And he lost it in a wave of tears.
At the crack of dawn, the CEOs held a meeting with the lobbyists and the bureaucrats and the Chamber. They tied Jesus up and took him to Pilate, who asked him, “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?” “You say so,” Jesus replied. The CEOs presented their trumped up case. Then Pilate asked again, “Don’t you want to answer any of these charges?” But Jesus kept silent. Pilate was astonished.
One of the festival traditions was that Pilate would release one prisoner, any one the mob might request. As it happened, a man who went by the name “Son of the Father” was also in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder during the rebellion. So when the masses came forward to ask Pilate to release someone, according to the custom, knowing very well that the Chamber had handed Jesus over out of spite, he asked them, “Do you want me to release the ‘King of the Jews’ for you?” Meanwhile the Chamber members riled up the crowd to have him release “Son of the Father” to them instead. “What do you want me to do with the ‘King of the Jews?’” Pilate asked. “Crucify him,” they shouted back. “Why? What’s he done wrong?” Pilate asked them. But they shouted louder and louder, “Crucify him!” So, to placate the masses, Pilate released “Son of the Father.” And, after giving Jesus a lashing, sent him off to be crucified.
The soldiers took Jesus to a courtyard in the Governor’s mansion, and when the whole company was there, they put a purple cape on him, and twisted some thorns into a crown and put it on his head. They began saluting him. “Hail, King of the Jews,” they mocked. They struck his head with a whip, spat on him, and knelt down in mock deference. Then they took off the purple cape, dressed him again in his own clothes, and took him off to crucify him.
They forced a bystander to carry Jesus’ cross. Simon from Cyrene, Alex and Rufus’s father, who was coming in from the country. They brought Jesus to skull hill, called Golgotha. They offered him a mixture of wine and myrrh, but he refused it. Then they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, deciding who got what by lottery. It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The charge against him was formally noted: “King of the Jews.” They crucified two insurrectionists with him, one on either side. People passing by mocked him. Shaking their heads, they would say, “Ha! And you said you’d destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Save yourself and come down from that cross.” The Chamber members and the bureaucrats also mocked him, saying among themselves, “He rescued others, but he can’t save himself. Let him, the anointed King of Israel, come down from the cross now. Let’s see it to believe it.” Those who were crucified with him also insulted him.
At noon, darkness descended everywhere. It stayed dark until three in the afternoon. At 3 pm, Jesus shouted, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?) Some who heard him said, “Look out! He’s calling Elijah!” Someone ran and got a sponge full of wine vinegar, put it on a pole, and offered it to Jesus, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to get him down.” He refused to drink. He breathed his last breath. That moment, the curtain in the Cathedral ripped in two from top to bottom. A lieutenant who was standing there and saw him die this way said, “Yeah, that was God’s child alright.”
Some of the women who had followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and used to serve him, were watching from far off. Their names were Mary Magdalene, Mary, young James’s mother, and Salome. When evening fell, since it was late on Friday just before the holy day, Joseph from Arimathea, who was a leading member of the Chamber and who was eagerly waiting for the old theocracy to be restored, went boldly to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. Pilate was incredulous that Jesus could already be dead, so he summoned the lieutenant to ask if it was true that Jesus had been dead for a while. When the lieutenant confirmed this, he released the body to Joseph. So, Joseph bought a linen cloth. He took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped his body in the cloth, and laid him in a mausoleum carved out of rock. Then he rolled a stone over the entrance. Mary Magdalene and Mary, Joses’ mother, saw where it was laid.
Jesus took his students with him to Caesarea Philippi. As they were traveling, he asked them, “Who are people saying I am?”
They said, “Some say you’re John the dunker. Others say you’re Elijah. Others say you’re another truth-teller.”
He asked them, “What do you have to say about me?”
Peter said, “You are the anointed one.”
And so Jesus told them not to tell anyone about him.
Instead, Jesus began to teach his students that the authentic human must suffer and be rejected by the rulers, the religious, and the bureaucrats, that he must be executed and three days later return to life. He said this was no secret.
Peter took Jesus aside and berated him, but Jesus turned his back to Peter, and as he looked at his other students said to him, “Get behind me, Satan. You don’t speak for God. In fact, you’re thinking is quite banal.”
He called the crowd and his students together and told them: “If you want to be my follower, you’ll have to put your willingness to be executed for treason against your overlords ahead of your own concerns. If you’re concerned with saving your own skin, you’re as good as dead. But whoever dies for me and and for the sake of this mission will really live. What’s it worth to have the whole world if you’re dead? Really, what will you trade your life away for? Whoever is embarrassed by their association with me and what I say because you want to fit in with all the cheating and corruption going on – the authentic human will consider them embarrassments when that one comes with the splendor of God commanding heaven’s legions.”
Notice the sharp contrast in this episode between Jesus’ self-understanding as being the authentic human and Peter’s identification of Jesus as “the anointed one.” The anointed one, the messiah, is someone who was commonly understood to be the hero who would come with super-human powers to rescue the people, who remain passive pawns in a divinely ordained game of geopolitics.
Jesus immediately rejects Peter’s understanding of the mission. Far from being a super-man with extra-human power, Jesus begins to teach them about being authentically human. The term traditionally, literally rendered, “Son of Man,” comes from the book of Daniel. Some recent translations, in the interest of inclusive language, have rendered it “the Human One.” But what’s at stake in the human one is what it means to be authentically human.
Mark’s Jesus insists that to be authentically human is to be willing to suffer, to be rejected, even to die, in order to take the side of the oppressed and abused. There is no glorious rescue from beyond. There is only the human work of restoring to the human family those who have been dehumanized for the profit of the rulers, the religious, and the bureaucratic task-masters. Mark’s Jesus insists that the only way to truly live, to be immortal, is to give oneself completely over to that cause. Paradoxically, fitting in, going along to get along, failing to stand up to the powers of oppression inevitably lead to an inauthentic unsustainable humanity. For Mark’s Jesus, authenticity is life, in-authenticity is death.
For those, like Peter, who are hoping for a knight on a white horse to sweep in at the last moment and save the day, the messianic expectation is bound to end in disappointment. Moreover, the misappropriation of Jesus’ mission as a messianic rescue mission will even lead those who insist on it to become unwitting agents of the very oppressors Jesus has come to stand against. Jesus turns and offers his back to Peter’s betrayal, and at the same time implores his own students, and anyone else who will listen in the crowds, to take the opportunity to join the ranks of an authentic humanity.