“Christ is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!” In many traditions and languages around the world, some version of this exchange is the customary Easter greeting. It’s meant as a word of celebration and thanks, a triumphant climax to a season of Lenten anticipation.
But the first time that announcement was made, the response was more ambiguous.
It had been a catastrophic week for the Twelve. They knew Jesus had his enemies, and that Jerusalem was a dangerous place to be. But then here was their Master, riding into Jerusalem to the roaring acclaim of the crowds. Here he was striding into the temple as if he owned the place, sending the money-changers and their coins scattering. Here he was in head-to-head debate with his opponents, confounding them into silence. How could the disciples’ hopes for a messianic kingdom not be inflamed?
And then Jesus washed their feet as if he were the most lowly of slaves, not a king. He cast a pall over their Passover meal by announcing that one of them would turn traitor, and that even Peter would fail him. And when, in Gethsemane, Judas arrived with an armed mob to take Jesus into custody, the rest of the Twelve fled in fear. We don’t know what the disciples did during those long, long hours between the cross and the empty tomb. In all likelihood, they were in hiding, thinking that all their hopes had been buried with their teacher.
Mark gives us the earliest account of what happened next. It’s Sunday. Three women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They bring spices with them, expecting the odor of rotting flesh rather than a resurrected Lord.
As they walk, they wonder who might help them roll away the large stone with which the entrance to the tomb had been sealed. But to their surprise, they find the stone already displaced. Stooping down to enter the tomb, they are startled by an angel, who speaks words of comfort:
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:6-7, NIV)
This should be joyous news: He has risen! And soon, you’ll see him again! Peter is even singled out by name, as if Jesus instructed the angel to give Peter special encouragement.
Are they comforted by this good news? If this were a Hollywood production, the women would first exchange meaningful glances when they hear the angel’s words. Then the music would swell, their confusion would melt into joy, and they would run with abandon to tell the others.
But this isn’t Hollywood. Here’s how Mark’s story ends: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8, NIV).”
Our English Bibles show 12 more verses, but note that this section is missing in the earliest manuscripts. Scholars generally agree that the account ends abruptly with verse 8, though some (like N. T. Wright) insist that there must have been more. We can’t know for certain.
Mark’s account, of course, is not the only one: Matthew describes the women as experiencing a mix of both fear and joy (Matt 28:8). But there’s something right about the shorter ending of Mark–because the question is whether the distraught disciples could truly know the fullness of Easter joy without Pentecost. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is a shout of victory; joy is its answering echo, as God’s Spirit speaks new life to our spirit.
For Paul, the resurrection is the sine qua non of Christian hope:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. … If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:13, 17-19, NIV)
Jesus has gone before us as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20, NIV), giving us the hope of a future bodily resurrection. But the echo of that future hope is our present transformation in the Spirit. We have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, and now are “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11, NIV), freed from our fatal slavery to sin.
Therein, I think, lies our Easter joy. The resurrection of Jesus is not merely a sign of things to come, a promissory note to be held in trust against the future while we plod wearily through the present. Sin and death are still part of our broken existence–but so is the rebirth to new life.
The best celebration of Easter is the one that remembers and rejoices in that resurrection truth. The best response to Easter is to live in the Spirit, to take hold of the gift of new life, firmly, with both hands.
Christ is risen! Indeed.