If you were writing up an inspiring story of renewed hope, is that how you would do it? We just read the apostle John’s narrative of what happened Easter morning, and it was rather long and involved, and not until the very end did we hear anything inspiring and hopeful. For most of the reading, what we heard was confusion, running around, and slightly odd minor details.
Some of those details seem less odd if you know how Jewish burials of that time worked. Bodies were not interred in the ground; instead, there was a two-step process. First the family took the body of their loved one to a large grave chamber with special shelves carved into it, and left it there on one of the shelves, wrapped with aromatic spices in a cloth. About a year later, the next of kin came back to that shelf, after decomposition was complete, and reverently gathered up the bones to put in a small box called an ossuary. You may have seen ossuaries in art museums. When the disciples John tells us about today arrive at the tomb where Jesus’ corpse had been laid, the shelf where it had been is vacant. The body is gone. John tells us that, which would seem to be a main point, but he also adds so many perplexing details.
Did you notice, for example, the business about the two kinds of wrappings? Peter, it says, “saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” Or did you notice all the bending: Mary bent down. Peter bent over. Or the running: Mary ran, Peter and the other disciple ran, one outran the other. Not till almost the end do we get to anything that sounds hopeful, and even that section is a bit unclear. If your main goal was to win people over with an inspiring story of renewed hope, this just isn’t how you would write it up. The story is problematic and the details are odd. Why?
In 1993 I was driving out the Mass Pike with my car packed full, on my way to seminary in Chicago, and my husband Mark was behind me in a U-Haul. There had been an aggressive Boston driver tailgating me for awhile, and when I realized we were coming into a one-lane construction zone – you know, the flashing arrows, the orange barrels – I decided to move over and let him pass me. Unfortunately I miscalculated how much time I had. I clipped a barrel trying to get back in the lane, lost control of the car, and ended up coming to a stop by crashing into one of the flashing arrows.
Did you know flashing arrows make a noise? It’s a sort of heartless metallic click. And did you know those barrels are full of sand? I do, because the one I hit exploded. I will never forget the split second after the car stopped, sitting there in shock, driver’s window shattered, sand all over me, and the arrow calmly going “click… click… click.” (Welcome to seminary!) Now, I don’t remember where we were on the Mass Pike. I don’t remember which other parts of the car were damaged. I don’t even remember what I said to Mark when he arrived in the U-Haul. But I will never forget as long as I live the clicking arrow and the sand.
They call that psychological phenomenon a “flashbulb” memory, so named because of its almost photographic nature that deteriorates very little over time. Flashbulb memories form when a shocking, emotional event leaves a particularly vivid imprint on the mind. Many of us have had this experience, I’m sure – remembering exactly where you were and what you were doing when you saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, for example, or when you heard that someone you loved had died.
There have been many studies on this kind of memory formation, and it seems as though the principal ingredients that cause the flashbulb effect are a high level of surprise, a high level of consequences for you, and a high level of emotion in the moment. We retain the details of our experience of such an event with amazing accuracy, although we don’t always recall related things; in a follow-up study of 9/11 memories, people didn’t necessarily remember, say, what airlines the planes were from, or where President Bush was when the attacks happened, but they remembered specifics like that they had just taken their first bite of a swiss cheese and ham sandwich on dark rye bread without mayonnaise.
Why does this Gospel reading bother describing the two kinds of wrappings and where exactly they were? Why doesn’t it skip over irrelevant information like that the disciples had to bend down, or that one disciple outran another but waited for him before going in? Those things contribute very little to the main story, but they’re included because they were seared into the disciples’ memories in this highly surprising, consequential, and emotional moment. Until the very end of this text, after all, the memories we’re hearing are those of people who still think the corpse of their Rabbi has been stolen by graverobbers. Of course they have perfect recall of minor details: this is their 9/11.
They may not remember what other tombs were in that garden, or how many Roman guards were on duty the night before, but they’ll never forget where those wrappings and that cloth sat on the ledge as long as they live. When they told the story, they couldn’t possibly not mention their flashbulb memory details. And the next person mentioned them to the next person, and soon they’d been widely learned by heart. The phrases in these texts were fixed so early, so soon after the event, that they don’t even show signs of the artistic rounding-off and the highlighting of allusions to other Biblical passages that most writing within the four Gospels has.
And take this fact a step further: the four stories of the resurrection in the Gospels aren’t even harmonized to make one coherent narrative. They each have bits of flashbulb memories sticking out of them, details that those who put them in writing simply couldn’t get away with leaving out, even though they make it hard for a later reader to see how these four stories could all fit together.
That profusion of extra details, as contrasted with a neat narrative meant to be inspiring, happens with the accounts of the empty tomb, and it also happens with accounts of meeting the Risen Christ. Once the resurrection happens, we start getting all kinds of weird details. The linen for the head was folded, but the other cloth was just lying there. The risen Jesus was grilling bread, and they’ll never forget the smell. Thomas wasn’t there in the room. The first disciple who got to the tomb didn’t go in, but the other did. The disciples caught exactly 153 fish, and they’ll remember the weight of those nets as long as they live. It was Mary, a woman -- a woman! how utterly embarrassing in a patriarchal culture! -- who gave the news to the 12 apostles. If they could have gotten away with not mentioning that, believe me, they wouldn’t have mentioned it.
I like an inspiring, well written story as much as the next person. A Wrinkle in Time. It’s a Wonderful Life. Shawshank Redemption. Great stuff. But the Gospel narratives of Jesus being raised from the dead into an entirely new kind of life are not inspiring, well written stories. They are not professionally crafted to make you cry at just the right moment. They are not polished and rounded off into convincing tales that warm your heart. Plenty of Christian literature is, but not these Easter texts. These texts are uncontrollable, true to life, and mind-boggling, because the Risen Lord they witness to is uncontrollable, true to life, and mind-boggling. He cannot be tamed, he cannot be captured, he cannot be managed, and he’s coming for us.
Once Christ is raised, God’s new world begins. It has been here among us ever since that first Easter, running right alongside the old one, so that you have to choose which one you want to live in. And in God’s new world, all kinds of things are possible that we don’t understand and that we can’t manage. The life of the world to come is here now in the risen Christ, and us humans, whether first century or twenty-first century, can only grasp at words to describe it. It’s too real. It doesn’t fit the way we always thought things were. But it’s happening. Christ is risen and the life of the world to come is being poured out, from these mysterious holy texts, from this altar, from everywhere and anywhere that God chooses to release it. And once you’ve had a taste of the life of the world to come, you’ll never forget it as long as you live.