In 1917, Rudolf Otto, who was a German Lutheran theologian and comparative religionist, published a book called “The Idea of the Holy.” In this book he invented a new word: numinous. He defined the numinous as the beginning of all religious experience. It’s an experience of that which is wholly other, totally outside of yourself, a capital-M Mystery (like God, or maybe like the empty tomb) that leaves you feeling both fascinated and terrified.
We think we like to be terrified—a little bit, some of us. Some of us like roller coasters. People pay money and wait in line to scream upside down. Some people love scary movies. Ghosts, monsters, zombies, serial killers all get our adrenaline pumping. We think we like to be terrified, but really we just like to be exhilarated and frightened a little. We like the jump scream in the dark theater, the loop-de-loop at the amusement park. We like fear packaged as entertainment. Nobody really wants to be truly terrified. Most of us don’t really want to have to run for our lives from a guy with a chainsaw. Most of us don’t really want to meet an evil spirit on a dark and stormy night. And to be honest, for similar reasons, many of us don’t really want to encounter God either.
In fact, I would say that we fear the experience of encountering God most of all. That’s why Rudolf Otto had to create a new word, numinous, even just to describe it. Because we’re so uncomfortable with the idea of acknowledging that there may be something so much bigger and so much more wonderful than us that we disrespect the very words we have to communicate about these things! --Did you remember to pick up milk? --Yes. --Awesome. Really? Awesome? --Are you free Tuesday? --Yes. --Terrific. Terrific?! What do you mean by that, exactly?
We waste the word “awesome” on mundane things and we rob it of its power to describe truly awesome, awe-inspiring, holy things. We use the word “terrific” to just mean “very good” and we forget that a terrific thing is not just a great thing, it’s a great and terrifying thing—terror-ific. We don’t want to think about that. --Can I borrow a pen? --Here you go. --Terrific. --Were you able to find parking? --Yeah. --Awesome. We don’t even want those words in our vocabulary because they might point us towards the experience we’re most afraid of—truly encountering God.
The writer of the Gospel of Mark understands this, I think. The original version of the Gospel of Mark ended right where we ended our reading this morning, “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.” Empty Tomb. Terror and Amazement. The End. The oldest Greek manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel, the book ends right there.
And it just drove people nuts. It was a little too ambiguous even for the true believers. They were afraid that this deficient gospel might confuse people or turn them off. So, they added endings. They added at least three endings to Mark’s gospel in different places, including the one or two that you’ll always read in your Bible—all of them adding in bits of the resurrection stories from the other three gospels—so that if you only read Mark’s gospel, you won’t be left thinking terror and amazement is all there is to the story.
But we have four gospels in our Bible, so we don’t have to miss out. And I think we should take seriously what Mark thought the most important part of the Easter story was without covering it up with the best parts of other versions of the story. If we’re going to hear the good news according to Mark, then our Easter morning can’t just be about the amazement and joy of resurrection, we also need to make a little room for terror, to be afraid—because that’s how Mark ends the whole story—with amazement and with terror. True, profound fear.
In some ways this is the perfect resurrection story for where we are right now in our history, right? Mark gives us the upheaval of the empty tomb—all the hope, all the possibility of the promise fulfilled, but also all the uncertainty, all the doubt, all the fear. Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it’s true! Oh my gosh… I can’t believe it’s true… I mean, we’re living in similar moment of upheaval.
There was a headline in the Washington Post yesterday, “As Coronavirus Vaccinations and Infections Surge, Hope Collides with Fear.” In the article they interviewed Dr. Laura Forman who runs the emergency room in the hospital in my hometown of Warwick, RI. She told them that a few weeks back, the first time she pulled into work and saw that the refrigerated truck they’d been using as a makeshift morgue was gone, all she could do was stare at the empty space where it had been and cry. “It was the most powerful symbol of hope,” she said.
But close on the heels of hope, there’s dread: There are variants, it looks like we’re in for another surge, mask mandates were dropped too soon in some places, there are still lots of adults who say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, and what about kids—they’re not vaccinated yet. This could be a great summer of hope! Or it could be another pandemic summer. Which will it be? I don’t know! Hope collides with fear! An Easter Upheaval!
We’ve had a monumental change in our political fortunes recently in this country. Democrats control the presidency, the senate, and the house. Georgia went Blue! Can you believe it? If you lean left, you’re thrilled about it, you’re expecting big things. But a recent survey found that 2/3 of Republicans believe that the last election was stolen and invalid. There’s the looming shadow of the Capitol riot with its threat of white nationalism and domestic terrorism. Georgia has now just passed harsh new voting restrictions.
The moment of victory so quickly turns to pessimism. Are we riding high into a new Camelot or are we going to just be run over by politics as usual? Are we entering a new era of bipartisan cooperation or is the pendulum just swinging left through an increasingly polarized time? I don’t know! Sometimes it’s even hard to tell the good news from the bad news. If the democrats get rid of the filibuster so that they can push through as much of their legislative agenda as possible, is that good news or bad news? I honestly don’t know. The pathway to hope seems so narrow and so fraught.
Mark’s Easter morning story acknowledges something about good news—that all news, even good news, is complicated news. There is no good news—not even God’s good news—that will guarantee you a painless, conflict-free life. Mark acknowledges the way God works in our lives and in our world—through our faithful struggles to do right, to do good, and to do better. The good news of Easter morning is not that our struggles are over. In some way Mark’s message seems to be that Easter morning is both victory and struggle, but even in the struggles Mark promises us that the crucified and raised Christ goes ahead of us and will meet us again as promised.
We could complain that Mark doesn’t actually provide any “proof” of the resurrection! That seems to be a flaw. But maybe Mark was looking forward a hundred, a thousand, two thousand years, and he realized that whatever he might write down, nothing could ever “prove” resurrection to you or to me. Even as the other gospels record it, Jesus’ resurrection was a mostly private event—for Jesus’ disciples and closest followers only. It wasn’t televised. And so Mark chooses to end his gospel where the faith of every Christian must pick up—with the amazing possibility and the terrifying burden of believing.
Resurrection can’t be proven. You believe in it, or you don’t. If you don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, you maybe don’t believe it. But when people say that they don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, they mean proven in origin or proven in fact. We can’t see backwards 2,000 years, so we can’t prove exactly what happened in that empty tomb. And there’s no scientific evidence to support such a thing as resurrection ever happening. And that could be the end of the argument.
But there’s another way to believe, which is really more about faith (as in the way you live) than it is about belief (what you think). And it’s more about the end than about the origin. So, belief says, “You can’t prove that Jesus was resurrected 2,000 years ago.” But faith says, “I believe that the power of the resurrected Christ fulfills my life and can heal the world.” It’s more about art than it is about science. Science is about perceiving facts. Art is about expressing the truth, making it whole, making it beautiful.
If we believe that dead is dead and Jesus is dead, the world is a little less amazing. And that suits some of us just fine. We want a manageable world, a physical world, a universe free of capital-M Mysteries and capital-M Meaning, a universe that we can eventually entirely conquer and understand. A universe that will eventually run out of surprises. Where a human life doesn’t count for much, but on the upside, you don’t have to worry about how you fit into the bigger picture, if there is no bigger picture. A little less amazing, a little less terrifying. A universe where the word awesome can best describe a really good cupcake you ate and has no further application.
But if we believe in a living, resurrected Christ—that changes everything. Every particle in the universe is touched by that light. We can’t prove resurrection in origin, but if we make it a part of our faith and if we live it out as the truth and meaning of our lives, it transforms us. We prove it in faith. We prove it in action. We prove it with the world we build together. We prove it with love.
Resurrection adds WOW to our lives, but sometimes WOW is terrifying. A living Christ in everything? Suddenly we’re so much more than we thought! Everybody else is too. And simultaneously, we’re suddenly not sufficient unto ourselves anymore. We need God, we need one another. The universe has been cracked open and at it’s true center there’s not just atoms, and particles, and fields—No, there’s meaning, truth, purpose, calling. WOW! Wow…
Beloved, Easter morning is not just for us true believers. It doesn’t matter maybe if you believe in resurrection or not, or even if you believe in God or not. Mark is inviting all of us to feel the awesome, terrific possibility that we don’t know where the limits of the universe or of ourselves are set. Mark is inviting us to rush out into a transformed, numinous universe and to live as if there is Mystery and Meaning everywhere.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations