Looking at this picture you may be thinking that opening and closing a tomb would be relatively simple. The stone is round – just roll it out of the way, right? If you look closer, however, you begin to see the difficulty. This is a big rock – maybe 1,000 pounds or more…It’s sitting in a channel and leaning back against the face of the hill. To keep it from moving before you’re ready, there is a large bump carved into the channel. So, to close the tomb, some really big guys have to get behind the stone with a lever and pop it up over that bump so it will roll – DOWNHILL – and cover the opening. To reverse the process and open the tomb takes a small army of big guys to roll the stone – UPHILL – and jump it over the bump to hold it in place.
Mark tells us that, just after sunrise, three women set out for the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with the spices and oils they just bought. It suddenly occurs to them: “Oh, wait, who will roll the stone away so we can get inside?” In their grieving, the women seem to anticipate their own failure at being able to perform their duty and resign themselves to defeat.
None of the gospels actually describes the Resurrection. They mention some version of the discovery of the empty tomb and then they describe a variety of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. The “empty tomb” by itself does not “prove” the resurrection…In biblical times the tomb was the waiting room or the entrance to the world of the dead. The empty tomb is a symbol that because Jesus has been raised, death has lost its power. The angel’s message pulls our attention away from the empty tomb – “he is not here” – to the proclamation: “he has been raised!” Our Christian faith rests on the proclamation, NOT the empty tomb.
Going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body is an act of resignation and one that seeks closure. The women, like all the disciples, didn’t yet understand and had no expectation of finding the tomb empty. They were going through the motions of grief – this explains not giving much thought to moving the stone. In a sense, there is an element of relief in the process of grieving. In the midst of it all there is now no reason to risk carrying Jesus’ message into the world. The disciples no longer have to worry about the persecution Jesus promised them. It doesn’t matter now – he’s dead.
There is a tension in this resurrection story between the present and powerful reign of God manifest in Jesus’ triumph, and the fearful response of disciples who are more ready to make peace with the death of the gospel than to risk living into its promises. Does this tension not remain with us today? Would it be easier to make peace with the decline of Christianity and the death of our churches, than it is to risk claiming the Resurrection and living into the evangelistic call to “Go and tell”? This story points us out of the tomb and into the world. It is God who has raised Jesus and God who has changed the rules and sends us into the blinding light of reality.
Mark’s gospel ends abruptly with verse 8. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Translators and interpreters were so disturbed by this ending that they rushed to “fix it” by adding their own. Early Christians wrote longer endings because, “surely that was intended.” Folks didn’t want to leave the story so unfinished and so un-disciple-like. They needed to see heroes who carried the message into the world just as Jesus had commanded them to do. Mark had a different message in mind. Mark’s gospel overcomes the control of these well-meaning writers and speaks to the utter failure of Jesus’ followers. These final words from the angelic messenger remain yet to be fulfilled…The message still needs to be passed along. “Go and tell,” the angel said and yet the women said nothing to anyone…They simply ran away in fear. It didn’t matter that the stone had been rolled away, they were too afraid to go past it. I think Mark intends this abrupt ending to bother us. I believe he intends this challenge to reach across time, throughout the generations…Do not be afraid like these first ones were. Do not run away never to be heard from again. Go and tell everyone that the normal patterns of life and death have been disrupted by the only One who can disrupt the power of death.
Only God’s faithfulness and our obedience will complete this story. God will roll away the stone that keeps us from seeing his revelation. God will roll away the stone that stands between us and the completion of this story. Come to the tomb – not afraid of its emptiness, but transformed by the realization that nothing now stands between us and life in God’s presence…The stone has been rolled away!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen