Isaiah 25:6-9 | Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 | Acts 10:34-43 | Mark 16:1-8
Brie and my first vacation as a married couple was to Yosemite National Park. We went in the spring, when it wasn’t peak tourist season, but we never would have guessed that. We had to book our campsite months ahead of time, and it seemed that no matter where we went in the valley there were crowds everywhere. The hikes were still fun and the views breathtaking, but it was hard to get a photo without 2 or 3 other people showing up in the background.
For our last hike of the trip, we wanted to find a trail that was less crowded. We looked through our trail guide and came across the Mono Pass trail on the eastern side of the Park. We decided to give it a try.
The Mono Pass trail was much different than the other areas of Yosemite that we’d seen. Instead of thick trees and looming granite domes, the Mono Pass trail was relatively barren and dry. There were still trees, but they were more spaced out.
The trail began at 9,700 ft. elevation, and climbed to 10,599 feet at the top of the pass, but the climb was relatively gradual. As we hiked the trail, we realized we would get the solitude we were looking for; we didn’t see a single person the whole time. The 4 mile hike took us a little while, and as we hiked we passed streams, lakes, and old, dilapidated cabins. We had to walk through snow and cross streams.
When we got to the top of Mono Pass, we realized the trail kept going. Mono Pass wasn’t the final destination. Despite the chilly wind that was whipping, we decided to hike just a little bit further. We reached Parker Pass, which sat at a whopping 11,100 feet elevation. But the trail still didn’t end there. From Parker Pass we saw that the trail continued on toward Gem Lake and Devil’s Postpile. If we followed this trail we would leave Yosemite and enter the Ansel Adams Wilderness. We could see the trail leading into a small valley just a little ways away. It was hard not to go just a little further, and see just a little more, even though we knew we couldn’t finish the trail and get back to our car in a day. In fact, we didn’t even know where the trail would end.
Would it continue on past Devil’s Postpile? Would it meet up with the Pacific Crest Trail at some point?
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, when you’ve been on a hike, or a drive, or visiting a new place and you want to keep going but time or weather have forced you to turn around before you see all that you want to see. There’s something so disappointing about leaving a journey incomplete and unfinished.
The Yosemite Falls hike, which we had done a few days earlier, was the opposite. There was no doubt when we reached our final destination on that hike. There was no more trail left, and we stood at the edge of the falls, which was the reason for the hike. The Yosemite valley stretched out beyond us in all its majesty. We sat down with the river rushing by us, took off our shoes and socks, and ate lunch. We’d made it.
When the three women in our Gospel reading this morning – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – set out for Jesus’ tomb, they are planning to reach a specific destination. They think they know where they’re going. They think they know what to expect. They think there’ll be nowhere else to go afterward, and they’ll turn around and head back home, the same way Brie and I headed back down the hill after we hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls.
They expect that their path will end quite suddenly. Initially they thought it would end after visiting Jesus and anointing his dead body with spices. But as they’re walking they realize there’s an even more concrete barrier ahead of them: a giant stone rolled over the mouth of the tomb.
But the heavier, denser, more daunting barrier that lies ahead of them isn’t something they can touch. It isn’t the stone. It’s death. Death bars the way forward. Before Jesus died, they had thought that he was leading them into something new, into the way everlasting, where there was no end to their journey, into a future full of possibilities, but there aren’t any possibilities left for them anymore. It turns out the way wasn’t everlasting, but had a very definite end. The way ended on Good Friday. The way ended at the cross.
There is only finality. The finality of death, as cold and immovable as the stone that holds the lifeless body of their friend and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, in his tomb, awaits these women as they being their walk early in the morning.
Two days ago, on Good Friday, we had a contemplative Stations of the Cross service here. The stations are still displayed this morning. As I made my way around the sanctuary, and I tried to put myself in the place of Jesus’ friends and family on the night he was crucified, I was struck by Matthew’s words that accompanied the 10th stations, which is titled “Jesus Dies.” Matthew says, “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” How final that is. He breathed his last.
As I sat there, meditating on the 10th Station of the Cross, I couldn’t help thinking of other humans, children of God, who have breathed their last. I instantly thought of 22 year old Stephon Clark, shot 20 times in his grandmother’s backyard for holding a cellphone. I thought about Jesus and Stephon, both bodies pierced by the weapons of the state. Both innocent. Both breathing their last. I thought of Mary crying at the foot of the cross. I thought of Stephon’s grandmother breaking down on camera. I thought about how final Stephon’s death must seem to his friends and family. I thought of how final Jesus’ death must have felt to the two Mary’s and Salome as they walked toward the tomb.
These women who began their walk early on the first Easter morning had seen Jesus breathe his last. When all his male disciples had run away, they watched from afar. They saw where he was buried. And now they have come to anoint his body, but they know his life has ended. They saw it with their own eyes.
Resurrection is hard to believe in. The finality of death seems irrefutable.
But as they approach the tomb they see that the end they had assumed would be there has given way to a small window of possibility. The stone that barred their path has been rolled away. Perhaps, maybe, death is not the end?
Still, they can’t get ahead of themselves. Maybe someone knew they were coming and rolled the stone away so that they could anoint the body of their beloved teacher. After all, that’s what they came to do. Maybe this is nothing out of the ordinary. This might still be the ending they expected.
They’re going to be able to get inside the tomb, that’s good, but surely the inside of the tomb will be as far as they can go. The way forward will still be blocked by death, that last, final, immovable, insurmountable obstacle which comes for everyone, even Jesus.
But as they cautiously enter the tomb, expecting to see the body of Jesus, which they saw only a few days earlier placed in this very tomb, they are met by yet another surprise. In the place of a corpse they see the living body of a young man they’ve never seen before. Who is he? Where did he come from? The description of the young man matches other biblical descriptions of angels, who often appear as young men in white robes. The women are understandably baffled. What is happening?
The young man, the angel, sees their troubled faces and tells them not to fear. He assures them that everything they saw over the past few days really happened. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth, a real person who you spoke to, ate with, and learned from was here. You didn’t get mixed up and enter the wrong tomb. Yes, he really was crucified. But he’s not here anymore. He’s been raised from the dead. That final breath wasn’t really his final breath. This is not the end. “Now,” the angel says, “go tell Peter and the other disciples what you’ve seen. Jesus has gone ahead of you to Galilee.” The angel can’t resist a little jab and adds, “just as he told you.”
It turns out the women haven’t reached the end of their journey, not by a long shot. The trail stretches on, like the trail stretched on before Brie and me when we hiked to Mono Pass. But to go on, they must leave the old and enter a new reality, just like we would have had to leave Yosemite National Park and enter the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Like Brie and I on our hike, they can’t see exactly where this new path leads. They don’t know where it will end. They don’t know if it will end. Maybe it really is the way everlasting.
They just know the next few steps. They know that they need to tell the other disciples, and they know that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Jesus has gone back to the place where he began his ministry, and he wants them to meet him there. He wants them to continue their journey that began at their home, took them to the tomb, and now is stretching on beyond the familiar and into the unknown.
The surprising and somewhat disturbing thing is, the women don’t do what they were instructed. Mark says that they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
What’s more troubling is that this is most likely the end of Mark’s original Gospel. There are two separate endings that follow this passage in our Bibles, but the earliest manuscripts don’t include them, and the language they use diverges from Mark’s normal style and vocabulary. While Mark surely believes that Jesus did, later, appear to disciples, he leaves that story for other people to tell. The resurrected Jesus never actually appears in Mark’s original Gospel
Mark ends his Gospel with the story of Jesus’ resurrection untold, with the male disciples nowhere to be found and the women turning around and heading back home instead of continuing on the path that Jesus has laid out before them.
Except, of course, the story isn’t untold. Because Mark is telling it to us. Mark, by writing this story, picks up the trail left cold by the early followers of Jesus.
Through Mark’s Gospel we are given the message meant for Peter and the other disciples. We find ourselves on the path Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome walked. And we also are given the choice to either turn back, or continue on the trail that leads us forward, one we cannot see the end of.
When the two Mary’s and Salome set out that morning, they thought their path would end at the tomb, but the opening to the cave was an opening to a new life, a path that stretched on ahead of them, where the resurrected Jesus waited for them. On Easter we stand at a precipice. We stand at the edge of one world and another. We see the path Jesus walked stretching on ahead of us, but we don’t know where it leads, or what we’ll encounter. We don’t know where Jesus will lead us.
All we can do is take one step at a time into this new world, this new life, this new path marked by resurrection.
The empty tomb is not the end of the journey. It’s the beginning. And Jesus is waiting for us just around the bend.