Easter in the Bible is never quite what you might think. Perhaps better said, this dramatic event central to the whole gospel story is not presented as one would expect. Unlike with Jesus’ birth story, none of the four gospels skips Easter. But each gospel tells the story a bit differently—and yet with curious similarities too.
True to form, Mark’s resurrection narrative is the shortest of them all. Mark opens his gospel with a bang and gets right down to business. The appearance of Jesus, his baptism, and his forty days of temptation are all dispatched within a scant thirteen verses. By contrast, Matthew writes 1,500 words (in the English Bible) before he gets to Jesus’ first act of public ministry, and Luke expends a whopping 3,800 words before Jesus first preaches. Mark gets us through all that in just 280 words.
Thus, as it was in the beginning of Mark, so too in the end: the whole Easter story is a mere eight verses, and what’s more, it ends in stunned, confused silence as the frightened women flee the tomb. In Greek, the last word of Mark’s gospel is gar, or “because,” and even though a former Greek professor told me that in Greek it is not all that unusual to end a sentence with such a word, I like the idea that Mark ends with a kind of ellipsis: “The women said nothing to anyone because . . .”.
The reader is left hanging. Whether or not that is the actual grammatical sense of the Greek of Mark 16:8, it most certainly has the rhetorical effect Mark intended. Mark ends with a puzzled silence.
Matthew devotes just two more verses to the story than did Mark. The women whose fearful silence left things seemingly up in the air in Mark manage in Matthew to actually run into the resurrected Jesus. But here too, although the women see Jesus, clasp his feet, and worship him, Jesus’ first words are “Do not be afraid.” Once again, a primary reaction to news of Jesus having been raised from the dead is something we seldom associate with Easter now: fear. And then, oddly enough, he instructs the women to tell the other disciples that if they want to see the resurrected Jesus they need to make an eighty-mile trek from Jerusalem clear up to Galilee. (I asked Google Maps how long that trip would take to walk, and the answer was twenty-six hours!)
Matthew’s Easter story has two more verses than Mark, and Luke then tacks on two more in his twelve-verse account of the resurrection event. But yet again, what we encounter here is not what we might expect, because although once again it is the women who first hear from the angels that Jesus has been raised, Luke’s initial reporting of that morning ends with doubt and confusion. The men dismiss the women’s report as “nonsense,” and although Peter was sufficiently intrigued that he went to the tomb to check things out, once he saw the empty tomb and the neatly folded burial wrappings, he walked away scratching his head. Yes, Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus and then his subsequent appearance to the disciples that evening expand the story in Luke 24. But if we limit ourselves to Luke’s account of that first Easter morning, it’s pretty spare.
John takes the prize for the longest account of the Easter morning events in his eighteen-verse story. But here, too, the initial reaction is confusion. John does not have the women meeting any angels and so only reports an empty (and possibly looted) tomb. This news sends Peter and John on a footrace to the tomb, and though they confirm what the women saw, they have no idea what happened, and John directly admits (in one of his hallmark parenthetical asides) that they did not know Scripture said Jesus would rise again. In one of the few recorded instances of Easter morning joy, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus, and once she realizes he is not the garden keeper, she has an outburst of the kind of joy lacking in the other three accounts. Jesus will appear to the disciples (absent Thomas) that evening as he does in Luke 24, but once more the reporting of the morning’s events is not quite what one might expect.
What are we preachers and interpreters of the gospels’ Easter accounts supposed to do with what I have just summarized? Do our congregations want to hear us talking on Easter morning about how fear was a more prevalent Easter-morning emotion than happiness or joy? Is Easter morning the time to point out that what comes across in the four gospel accounts of the resurrection is mostly befuddlement and skepticism? If that were all we had to say in an Easter sermon, it probably would not go over very well. But what if we used these facts as the launching point for some other observations?
For instance, to tell a triumphant story in a non-triumphant way creates a degree of irony. What’s more, those who understand this irony can then become a community of readers “in the know.” Yes, we recognize the cosmic ramifications of this victory of life over death. Indeed, we are so certain that it is true that, like the original evangelists, we see no need to glitz up the story with razzle-dazzle and exaggerations and narrative fireworks. In the comparative quietness of the gospel accounts of Easter morning, we encounter a kind of quiet confidence in our faith.
There are pastoral implications here too. I love that John 20 opens with the words “while it was still dark.” Easter always begins in the darkness—not just the literal predawn darkness of that original Easter morning, but also the metaphorical and spiritual darkness we all face. What’s more, Easter is announced to people who feel afraid, uncertain, and skeptical. In the Bible, Easter creeps up on uncertain or downcast people the way Jesus came up behind the weeping Mary Magdalene and the two despondent travelers headed to Emmaus. This is where Easter finds us: in the dark, in the fog of confusion, in our doubts and skepticism, in the nitty-gritty realities of a world that can be very disorienting.
The gospels’ four Easter-morning stories are not as grand, embellished, embroidered, or downright dramatic as one might guess they would be. But for those very reasons they carry with them not only a sense of authenticity, but a sense of fitting our real lives right now. We need Jesus to come up behind us, too, when we are crying, afraid, confused, or skeptical. And he does. The gospels give us an Easter morning that fits our lives. And when preaching on Easter morning, that may be a fine and pastorally sensitive thing to say.