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By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London
On the Great Vigil of Easter, Episcopalians gather by a fire to tell stories. We light the Paschal Candle, from which we then light our own individual candles, and listen to the deacon chant the ancient words of the Exsultet. As we try to avoid spilling hot candle wax on ourselves and the furniture, we become gradually dazzled by the meta-narrative of God’s creative power as told through the mythopoetic language of Genesis, the lyrics of the Psalms, the prophecies of Isaiah, the wisdom of Proverbs, the visions of Ezekiel, and ultimately, through the Gospel account of the resurrection. This year, as parish leaders discern the safest way to celebrate this Queen of Feasts, we hear the proclamation of the resurrection as told by St. Mark the Evangelist, whose version of the story often leaves readers befuddled.
In fact, readers have been so perplexed by Mark’s open-endednon-conclusion over the centuries that ancient copyists apparently decided to try tying up the loose ends themselves by adding verses 9 – 20 to Mark’s final chapter. The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end abruptly at verse 16:8: “So [Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So, in Mark’s Gospel, fear literally has the last word. To make matters worse, these female disciples (who are often portrayed by Mark as more faithful than the men) are doing precisely what the heavenly messenger explicitly told them not to do. The white-robed man urged them not to be afraid and then charged them to go tell the other disciples that the Risen Christ had gone ahead of them to Galilee (16:6-7), but they seem to let their fear get the best of them, so they tell no one. And that’s where the Gospel ends.
This is Mark’s unique and cryptic way of declaring the great Easter proclamation that Jesus Christ is indeed risen. Mark seems to be following the wisdom of Emily Dickinson who famously said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” The truth of Christ’s Resurrection is proclaimed by Mark, but his exceptional slant gives us permission to be confused, to ask questions, to contemplate our own conclusions, and to ultimately be dazzled by Truth’s “superb surprise.”
We may ask ourselves why the women disciples were so overwhelmed and initially silenced by their fear. In asking this question, we are invited to put ourselves in their shoes. Obviously, they have just experienced an event far beyond the realm of everyday life: the empty tomb of their beloved rabbi whose brutal crucifixion they had just recently witnessed; and a mysterious, white-robed man informing them that said rabbi is now waiting for them 75 miles away in Galilee. This is reason enough for anyone to be petrified by fear, shock, and amazement—not to mention, utter disbelief. Or they may have been afraid of potential punishment by the Roman authorities who might feel threatened by rumors of a crucified bandit’s supposed resurrection. Or they may have felt afraid for the disciples who had abandoned their teacher in his most desperate hour; and thought that the risen Jesus was returning to Galilee to severely chastise the disciples for their cowardice and reprimand Peter for his spineless denials. Their fear may have been a potent cocktail of all these concerns or perhaps their fear was not based upon any reason at all. Either way, they were afraid, even terrified; and being told by a mysterious, white-robed man to not be afraid was not going to help them calm their nerves.
Whenever I’m seized with fear, I personally do not find great solace in someone simply telling me not to be afraid. Although I appreciate the charming sentiment that the phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in the Bible (one for every day of the year), I have found that letting go of fear is certainly easier said than done. And what I find so encouraging about Mark’s unique slant on the Easter proclamation is the fact that even when we are afraid and even when that fear might get the best of us, God’s life-giving truth will still win the day.
In her book Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel, Bonnie Thurston writes, “I think the very odd ending of Mark’s gospel at 16:8 is his intended one … there is a word of promise, and there is the failure of the human disciples. But the word of promise predominates. If the disciples and witnesses fail (and they do), the message and the cause is not lost.” The very existence of Mark’s Gospel “bears witness to the fact that in spite of terror, and fear,” the women disciples eventually do share their experience of the empty tomb. I imagine the women exhibited the kind of courage Martin Luther King Jr. defined as the “inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations,” in spite of overwhelming fear.
The Easter proclamation of Christ’s resurrection urges us all to not be afraid: since Christ has trampled down death by death, we ultimately have no reason to fear. However, Mark’s slant on the Easter proclamation assures us that even when we do feelafraid—for whatever reason or for no clear reason at all—we still know that God’s life-giving truth ultimately prevails.
COVID-19 has given us all plenty of reason to be afraid and even terrified as it uncovers deep social ills, heightens political division, and prevents us from gathering in healthy ways to be renewed by our faith community. I imagine all of us are plagued with fear to some extent right now, whether or not we are conscious of its grip on our lives. While the Easter promise invites us to let go of our fear, Mark reminds us that even if our fear causes us to fail, the Easter promise still speaks to us. Even if our fear leads us to deny Christ like Peter or even become complicit in violence like the Roman soldiers, Christ returns from the grave to say, “I forgive you. Let’s try again to let go of that fear, but if you’re still afraid, that’s ok, because my love is always stronger.” Mark’s slant on the Easter Promise invites us all to be gradually dazzled by the light that overcomes the darkness, the life that destroys death, and the superb surprise that God’s love will triumph even when we are afraid.
 In a strictly literal sense, the last Greek word is gar (“for”)as in ephobounto gar (“for they were afraid”).
 Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263. I’m grateful to my parishioner Laura Rose for sharing these words with me while I was contemplating Mark’s Easter account.
 Bonnie Thurston, Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 80 – 81.
 Bonnie Thurston, Maverick Mark, 13.
 Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love: Sermons from “Strength to Love” and Other Preachings (Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2012), 120. This year, Easter Sunday happens to fall on April 4, the feast day of the pastor and martyr Martin Luther King Jr.