Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Dr. Travis Helms on Mark 16:2
by Rev. Dr. Travis Helms | April 5, 2018“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”
Greetings, Friends — “Grace and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ,” and your friends at St. Matthew’s, Austin! When Fr. Daniel graciously invited me to reflect on a passage from the Gospel of Mark, I felt humbled and excited. However, I then realized the invitation was to reflect on a single verse of scripture, which truly is humbling in its difficulty — and also tremendously exciting in potential. Like a little prism you can spin in the sun, the more you contemplate a single verse of Scripture, the more you spin it and spin it, the more it flings and rainbows out its light — its insight that then can soak into our lives (Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag said of Torah, in the 1st or 2nd century, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it!”). Let’s spin this verse of Scripture, then.
The first thing to notice about this particular verse is the time of day. It is early — very early. The sun has just risen; and this fact, I suppose, is the central focus or main emphasis. Those who go to anoint Jesus do so as soon as possible. Even though the task they face bears with it an almost unimaginable burden of grief, they get up early. They cannot help but do so. They know this is the needful thing to do; and they go, as early as they can.
Many mornings I have risen early, as I imagine you have. The reasons that typically compel me to consciousness “when the sun had risen”: fishing, traveling, finishing a sermon. Sometimes (as in the first two cases) it is excitement that wakes me. Sometimes, as in the latter, it is worry. Little needlings of anxiety begin prickling in the early a.m., and intensify, until finally I rise to face the task at hand. Would it not have to have been fear — fear mixed, perhaps, with love for their Lord — that drew those women so early to the tomb? Fear mingled with love then.
Fear is the feeling — biologically and spiritually — that tells us to pay attention. Uncomfortable, even paralyzing as fear can be, it is often an indicator that a moment of consequence is at hand. Fear is an indication that something important is approaching — and in this sense, it is also an invitation — an opportunity to be transformed.
We are arriving at the heart of Mark’s meaning here. I think that the immediacy of the women’s action is meant to show us that, whenever we are faced with uncertainty and fear, our only choice is to go and face it. I think Mark is inviting us to look at the places in our lives that might feel like tombs (our jobs, our homes, our schools, our public square?), and “go there” — pay attention to them — and believe that in those places we may encounter Resurrection.
This invitation reminds me of a parable of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich. An anchoress, Julian lived in a small cell that was constructed into the walls of a church in eastern England. She had a series of visions, which she called ‘shewings,’ and collected as Revelations of Divine Love. Here is a portion of Chapter 51:
Our gracious Lord answered in showing very mysteriously a wonderful illustration
of a lord who has a servant …
The lord sits solemnly in repose and in peace, the servant stands near, before his
lord reverently, ready to do his will. The lord looks upon his servant most lovingly
and sweetly, and humbly he sends him to a certain place to do his will.
The servant not only goes, but he suddenly leaps up and runs in great haste because
of his love to do his lord’s will. And immediately he falls into a deep pit and receives very great injury. Then he groans and moans and wails and writhes, but he cannot rise up nor help himself in any way.
In all this, the greatest misfortune that I saw him in was the lack of reassurance, for
he could not turn his face to look back upon his loving lord (who was very near to him and in whom there is complete comfort), but like a man who was feeble and witless for the moment, he was intent on his suffering, and waited in woe …
… I watched deliberately to see if I could discover any failure in him, or if the lord would allot him any blame, and truly there was none seen — for only his good will
and his great desire were the cause of his falling …
And in the same way his loving lord constantly watched him most tenderly …
The servant in Julian’s parable, like the women in Mark’s narrative, runs forth with a desire to serve his lord. He falls, as we all do. Bruised and battered, he lies discouraged in the ditch — and worries his Lord will be displeased. But the Lord is pleased, and even rejoices in the fact that he has run so boldly. Jesus echoes this teaching in many of his own parables (such as the Parable of the Talents). We are to take risks, to do the best we can with what we have — with love, desire to serve our lord, as our guiding drive.
There is something mysterious, even mystical, about the early morning. It feels as if its mists are pregnant with possibility. This is the magic for us as readers; we who know the story, know what these women, when they reach the tomb, will find … nothing — empty space … and yet in that nothing, everything. The tomb becomes a womb; and creation begins to be reborn again. May we have the grace to see what God is birthing, and resurrecting, in us this Season — and the courage to run and serve, as quickly as we can.
Travis is the Curate and Family & Youth Pastor at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX.