So the tomb is empty, He is risen, and we rejoice. Mimosas and friends, in fact, greeted me after Easter Mass, and my soul felt like the chorus of Handel’s Messiah. My phone buzzed with happy text messages. It was a good day.
I don’t think that reaction is bad (when are mimosas ever bad?), but untroubled elation does not necessarily capture the original Easter mood. As we move forward toward Pentecost, I propose we open ourselves to a different set of emotions, that we allow ourselves to be confused, frustrated, shocked and afraid.
Did I have too many mimosas? By welcoming apprehension, you might ask, are we not mocking the glory of the Resurrection?
I don’t think we are, and to understand what I have proposed, consider the Gospel of Mark. As readers know, Mark’s account contains two endings, the original ending as well as a longer one. I’ve always liked the original, shorter version because the narrative stops abruptly. There is no cheerful, cathartic reunion between Christ and the apostles, and for that reason it seems all the more authentic.
What happens on that first Easter Sunday? Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James head to the tomb to anoint Jesus. Upon arriving, they see the stone rolled away. A “young man” (an angel, as Matthew’s Gospel calls him) announces that Jesus has risen and instructs the women to tell Peter and the disciples that they will find Jesus in Galilee.
The response of the Marys is critical. In the wake of the news that their friend and leader has risen from death, what do they do? Do they embrace happily and celebrate? Not at all. Mark tells us that “they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”
The significance of this initial reaction has been powerfully described by theologian James Alison in his book, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. According to Alison,
The stone put aside and the absence of the corpse were not in the first instance a motive for rejoicing, but for terror. Terror because what had happened was quite outside anything that could be expected. . . . Terror because now there was no security, no rules, nothing normal could be trusted in.
“Whatever Christian hope is,” Alison concludes, “it begins in terror and utter disorientation in the face of the collapse of all that is familiar and well known.”
Shock, fear, and silence: These are the primal emotions that greet the first evidence of eternal life.
I am aware that Matthew’s account describes the women as both fearful and joyous, but even Matthew, in his more celebratory tone, doesn’t shy away from acknowledging their fear. Moreover, by this point in the biblical witness, the emotions Mark describes are not new. In fact, they mirror the fallout from an almost equally momentous event in the divine plan. At the Annunciation, after Gabriel’s greeting of “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” Luke writes that Mary “was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.” Mary’s reaction prompts the angel to reassure her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” But Mary remains bewildered, and says, “How can this be?”
Like the women at the tomb, Mary initially finds this step in salvation history quite unsettling. She is troubled, afraid, and puzzled, and can only respond in faith: “[L]et it be to me according to your word.”
Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with examples of this relationship. It is the relationship between a manifestation of God or his plan and the human response of puzzlement, awe, and fear. It is the dynamic that Rudolph Otto so brilliantly explicated in The Idea of the Holy, in which he identified this cluster of human feelings as the mysterium tremendum, “the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”
Why care about this mysterium tremendum, especially now? First, it is intrinsic to the way the Judeo-Christian tradition understands the creature’s encounter with God. Feelings of astonishment and fear, or of terror and disorientation, can signal the intimate presence of the divine. If we feel overwhelmed by something that evades our concepts and rationalizations and causes us to ask, “How can this be?” we too may be the object of an annunciation, our own call to say “yes” to a great task of God.
Second, an encounter with the fearful and awesome mystery of the Creator may be necessary, because we may need to undergo (in the words of Alison) “the collapse of all that is familiar and well known.” It is this collapse, in fact, which Jesus essentially calls for as a condition of discipleship. After He announces the Kingdom of God to be at hand, Jesus says, “[R]epent, and believe in the Gospel.” The word translated as “repent” is the Greek metanoia, which is not simply the determination to avoid sin but a soul-changing conversion of mind and heart. The “collapse,” then, may be nothing more than a turning away from an old, sinful self, a willingness to lose one’s life in order to save it.
Third, to be open to the mysterium tremendum, especially now, can help us identify with the original Resurrection experience, that majestic and shattering sense that something radical had happened, that existence had been fundamentally altered. It can help us appreciate that Easter is not just another holiday, like a Fourth of July with Mass.
So, by all means, raise a glass to eternal life. But if you encounter a person, an event, or a situation that leaves you unsettled and afraid, fear not, for it may be him brooding beneath.
Matt Emerson teaches theology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, California, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org