Easter Vigil: It’s All a Joke!
By: Kristen Leigh Southworth
There’s a Korean joke that asks, “What noise does a toaster make?” The answer is the Korean word for bread. Hilarious, right? How about this one from Japan: “There is a mandarin orange on an aluminum can.” ROFL? No?
Humor doesn’t translate very well across languages and cultures. Comedy is grounded in breaking expectations, so in order to even pick up on the fact that something funny is happening, you have to have a pretty good handle on the cultural assumptions and linguistic norms of a given context. You need to know what is expected in order to recognize when something unexpected has occurred.
Many people, Christians especially, are surprised to learn that the Bible—and Gospels in particular—are actually filled with humor, wit, irony, satire, and even jokes. I had a professor in seminary who said that most of Jesus’ parables would have been hilarious to their ancient hearers, but since we have lost so much of the context, most of the time, we just don’t get it.
Christians in general also have a tendency to take the Bible very seriously…. perhaps a little too seriously. Whether we are part of sola Scriptura traditions that interpret the Bible literally, or liturgical traditions that parade heavily-ornamented Gospel books around during worship, most Christians tend to approach the Bible with an attitude of solemnity, and an expectation for rational, moral instruction. There is nothing wrong with a little reverence, but when we approach Scripture with these kinds of expectations, we potentially miss out on important layers of meaning in the text that are communicated through its creativity and its sense of humor.
Mark’s resurrection story is probably my favorite example of this. Perhaps no story in the Bible is approached by Christians with more seriousness than Jesus’ resurrection, since our entire faith hinges on it. People have been arguing for two millennia about whether to take this story seriously or not. Mark’s version of the story is the earliest, with many scholars dating the text to about 40 years after the events it describes, so one might expect it to be taken the most seriously out of all the Gospel accounts.
But many people have come to think of Mark’s resurrection story as something like a “first draft” –it provides basic information, but it seems to end rather abruptly, with nobody having seen the resurrected Jesus and nobody spreading the good news. The last verse in our excerpt today is the original ending of Mark; verses 8b and 9-20 are not in the original manuscripts, and they are understood to have been added much later since neither Origen nor Clement of Alexandria seem to have any knowledge of them.
Most Christians deal with this seemingly incoherent conclusion by either ignoring Mark’s account entirely or by drawing from Matthew, Luke, and John to fill in the rest of the details. However, I think that Mark’s version of the resurrection is the most compelling by far, and that we must take it on its own terms, and in its original format. Besides, otherwise we miss the joke.
In the very first chapter of Mark, we read about Jesus healing a leper. Afterwards, he sternly warns the man, saying, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” But the man goes out and begins to proclaim it freely (Mark 1:40-45.) A few chapters later, Jesus raises the daughter of a synagogue leader from the dead, but strictly orders them that no one should know about it (Mark 5:43.) Nevertheless, the news of Jesus and his healing powers spreads, and a couple of chapters later, the crowd brings him a man who is deaf and mute. Jesus pulls him away from the crowd to heal him, and then tells everyone gathered not to say anything about it. But the text says that “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36.)
At the end of the book, the women go to the tomb after Jesus’ death to offer him a proper burial, only to find an empty tomb, and a man sitting there dressed in white. He instructs them to go and tell everyone what they have seen: that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
So what do they do? They run away and say nothing to anyone.
Get it? They finally listened to Jesus! I think it’s hilarious.
Especially when you consider the fact that the Gospel of Mark was written during a time when the first generation of disciples and eyewitnesses to the mission of Jesus had recently died or been killed, it is all the more remarkable that the text does not depict them in a more honorable light, as the mighty heroes of the one, true, pure faith. Instead, they are shown to be a bumbling group of fearful and incompetent witnesses, who always did the exact opposite of what Jesus told them to do, all the way up until the very end when they were finally supposed to do the opposite, at which point they turn around and finally follow the original instruction.
The depiction of Jesus’ original followers is indeed very funny, but its function is not merely comedic. Through this humor we are offered a resurrection story that demands our presence and participation. The Gospel of Mark is not about recounting the facts of something that happened in a distant time and place. And it’s not about glorifying people from the past, or comparing our experiences to theirs. Later accounts of the resurrection would fill in some of the post-resurrection details with stories of how it happened to Mary, and Peter, and John, and Thomas. Those stories seem to offer us a more satisfying conclusion by giving us something clear that we can hang our hats on. But they also maintain a kind of distance between ourselves and the resurrection reality. Those other people from the past, they had these miraculous encounters with Jesus after his death, and that’s what this is all about.
The Gospel of Mark does not give us the option of making Jesus’ story into a story about the past, or the story of other people. Its ending requires us to show up and fill in the rest ourselves. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, it leaves it up to the reader what will happen next. Will the women eventually go and tell the rest of the disciples about what they have seen and heard? Will the disciples listen and go to Galilee? Will they see Jesus there? Will you? If you want to know the end of the story, you have to live it yourself.
Mark’s original resurrection story is not simply a first draft. It is a literary masterpiece that calls forth new generations of Christians continually to take up their crosses and resume the mission of Jesus. The foibles and failures of the previous generation of disciples become our call to action. Instead of simply being asked to simply respect the heroes of the past, we are invited to take their place, to succeed where they failed, to pick up their slack, to seek the resurrected Jesus in our own lives in new and unexpected ways and to proclaim the good news of his resurrection based on our own experiences, not simply by reporting the vicarious witness of others.
Mark’s story leads us to the threshold of faith and then leaves us to stand there, asking ourselves whether we will cross. Will a new generation of disciples go and tell what they have seen and heard? Will they open themselves to encountering the resurrected Jesus? Will you?
Kristen Leigh Southworth is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she studied cultural theology, Biblical interpretation, theological aesthetics, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she works as a freelance writer, musician, and teacher.