We human beings have within our hands the capacity to do much good to alleviate some of the world’s great pain. Technology, science and medicine have done little to take away one painful human inevitability that we have no power to modify – death. Christians believe the good news that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has done something decisive about death. All our human attempts to defeat death are pitifully inadequate, but God’s work is grand in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
The roles of the disciples now appear to have been taken, in the Gospel of Mark’s account, by the women who go out to the tomb in the darkness to dress the decaying body of Jesus with sweet-smelling spices. What the women discover is that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. A “young man” (an angel) tells them that Jesus is raised, and the women flee in terror and in silence. Mark’s account is not only terse, it is also what one might expect in a Gospel like Mark that is one long passion story. In Mark, the story of Jesus is full of rejection, pain, and failure. The disciples are promised few rewards and favors for their discipleship. Rather, they are promised a share in the suffering and rejection that Jesus encounters.
In what way are the women, with their spices, a parable of us all when it comes to our reaction to defeat and death, and also to God’s miraculous, powerful response in the resurrection of crucified Jesus from the dead? Because it reminds us that “you have come from dust and to dust you shall return.” Death is universal and inevitable. Nothing we can do – no diet, no endowment, no healthy way of living our lives – can do anything substantial in the face of death. Only God can do something decisive about death.
So here are the women coming out to dress the dead body of the one whom they had loved. Of course, the covering of a dead human with spices provided only a meager, temporary reprieve from the reality of death. Death is about decay. The living organism immediately starts to break down. The women with their handful of spices, seen from this point of view, are a rather sad, pitifully ineffective response to the reality of death. Look at what friends say to us at the time of death of a loved one. They are attempting to console and to comfort us. They say things like, “Well, he has gone on to a better place,” or “He will live on in our memories.” But when we love someone, we don’t want them to leave us, to be absent from us, to go anywhere, no matter how wonderful the place they are going is alleged to be. And though we have some wonderful memories, we don’t want memories. We want them as they were; here, with us.
The women go out to the tomb with their pitiful array of sweet-smelling spices. “He is risen!” says the young man dressed in white. And what does that mean? No one had ever been raised from the dead, bodily raised, set loose again in the world by their own power. What does that mean: “He is raised”? Humanism, the belief that we are all that there is, can be, in many ways, a very noble point of view. Humanism tends to have a very exalted sense of the dignity of human worth. Most humanists believe that we human beings have within our hands what we need in order to set right whatever is wrong with the world. Humanists also tend to believe that human beings are basically good creatures. We are, despite any momentary setbacks, making progress as we go through this life, according to the humanist. And this is all well and good until we come to the fact of death.
Only God can overcome death and, so Christians believe, in Easter, God has done just that. This day we can drop the spices and run back, despite our fear, to tell anyone who will listen: “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”