They Were Afraid

What to do? Begin again. At the beginning.

Today is Easter, also called Pascha or Resurrection Sunday. As I write, I’ve just returned from church, where we celebrated The Great Vigil of Easter. The liturgy begins with these words over a newly-kindled fire: 

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land. 

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave. 

Welcome to the radical celebration of new life. It isn’t about bunnies and baby chicks. The reign of injustice and death has been dismantled. Pharaoh and Caesar have been cast down. Liberation is at hand. He has been raised; he is not here. 

Mark 16:1-8 

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the First day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 

They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

So they went out and Red from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

My grandfather died on Maundy Thursday in 1969. As was the custom in those days, services were held shortly after death. The viewings were on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and his funeral was on Easter Monday. Somehow, on the Sunday between the sad gatherings at the mortuary, my mother created Easter baskets, dressed up three small children and got us to church, and fed the extended family a holiday meal. It was a lot. 

And, even as a ten-year old girl, I knew it was hard. I felt the angularity of it all — death and grief, new life and joy. It was a memorable Easter, not for good reasons. 

As the eldest grandchild, I was dispatched to my grandmother’s house to keep her company. In happier days, it was a treat to spend time with her. I loved her very much. That weekend, however, she was exhausted. She cried. And she didn’t want to be alone. At night, she tucked me into the king-sized bed she’d shared with my grandfather, right next to her. I think to be comforted by my breathing. But I slept fitfully, waking frequently in the dark. 

In a restless moment, I rolled over. My grandmother was asleep. I turned the other way — and I saw someone standing in the doorway to her bedroom. The figure was indistinct, a shadow really, but recognizably a man, one of similar size and bearing to my grandfather. I froze in place, unable to stop staring at the door, now with an eerie glow outlining the shape. I was both terrified and transfixed. But I managed to pull the blanket over my head, and shut my eyes. Eventually, I fell back to sleep. 

The next morning, I overheard my grandmother talking to my mother. She told my mother of the “ghost” in the bedroom. My mother said she’d imagined it. I said nothing. I was too afraid. 

That all this happened at Easter would have suited my grandfather. He wasn’t a Christian. Or perhaps he was such a good one that he couldn’t bear church. Too many hypocrites, he’d growl. Full of grifting preachers and money-grubbing priests. He was a man of high principles and reason — dedicated to justice for the working man and with a profound sense of moral decency. He had a library full of great novels; he read voraciously although he never went further in school than eighth grade. He worked as a machinist at Westinghouse, but avocationally was an artist. He created things with his hands. He was proud. He had married my grandmother when she was pregnant out of wedlock and kept his family together through the Great Depression. When a richer relative offered to adopt my mother to relieve some of the family’s poverty, he refused because he loved his children. But he wouldn’t raise them with religion. All that superstition and corruption wasn’t for him. Later, I’d sometimes wonder if he had secretly been a Communist. 

It probably would have pleased him that his death disrupted some Methodist minister’s Easter schedule. Easter was a sham anyway. 

The day following the apparition, my mother and grandmother went to the funeral home for the final service and interment. We little ones weren’t allowed to go. Too scary, my mother had decreed. It was private. And following it all, on that Easter Monday, my grandfather was cremated. 

But the odd occurrences didn’t stop. My grandmother insisted that the figure kept showing up in her bedroom. Little things went missing from the house. And, when she went to open the storage room in the basement, a fine yellow dust had evenly settled like an otherworldly snow on every box and every tool housed there. No one could explain any of it. My mother worried that her mother was losing her mind with grief. 

Eventually, the weird events stopped. My grandmother moved into our house. I still said nothing. Not until two decades later, after she died. Then, I told my mother what I’d seen in the bedroom in 1969. 

Of all the accounts of what happened to Jesus on Easter morning, I most believe the one in Mark’s gospel. By now, the reason why should be obvious. The passage for Easter this year is the original ending of Mark. In many ways, this short reading is puzzling. There’s no actual risen Jesus (just a “young man in a white robe” saying he has risen); there’s no triumph or joy. There are only women who have seen an empty tomb with its phantasmic herald: So they went out and Red from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

That’s it. That’s the ending of Mark’s gospel and his entire story of resurrection. Verses 9 – 20 were added much later, no doubt because of this abrupt and unsatisfactory finale. I wish they hadn’t been added. For, without them, the story of that first Easter Sunday is the most human of all the accounts. It is simple, straightforward: mourners, an empty tomb, an otherworldly being, and a directive to tell everybody what happened that the frightened women promptly disobey. 

I’m certain that I would have done exactly the same thing. Because, barring the empty tomb bit, I pretty much did. When I was ten, nothing could have made me tell the story of seeing a man that looked like my newly-dead grandfather standing in the doorway of his bedroom with a glowing light radiating around him on Easter Sunday. I covered my head, and closed my eyes as tightly as I could for terror and amazement seized me and I said nothing to no one, for I was scared out of my wits. 

See what I mean? Being afraid is a much more normal than shouting alleluia. Empty tombs and discarded burial cloths, spiritual visitations and conversations with the dead — these should make us tremble with wonder and fear. What do you say when you’ve seen such things? Nothing makes perfect sense. Mark is the most believable resurrection story ever told. 

But Mark didn’t let terror lead to denial. And fear doesn’t mean the women remained frightened forever. Instead, his account holds out an invitation, one the women surely remembered and eventually followed. The angel-ghost-whoever tells the women to go to Galilee — go back to the place where it all started — and “there you will see him.” 

Go back to the beginning. Go back to where the story began. And then, you will understand. You will see him. 

Have you ever gone back to the place where a story started? Retraced your steps? Not as a nostalgia trip, but to understand yourself, your life, and your calling anew? The act of returning is powerful — often healing and restorative — and going back makes going forward possible. 

In the early 1960s, my grandparents bought their first car. To celebrate, they took the first vacation of their lives — the honeymoon they’d long ago been denied — and they drove to Arizona. They sent postcards from all along Route 66. When they returned to Baltimore, they showed us slides of the magical land of “Out West” and regaled us with stories of cowboys and the Navajo artists and traders they met. They loved the desert and the sky. They loved the Grand Canyon. There are faded pictures of them standing at the South Rim, my grandfather’s arm draped over my grandmother’s shoulders, both smiling broadly, looking happier than I ever remember them being. My mother remarked that the journey had “changed them.” In good ways, I knew. They discovered something about themselves on the road — and they were never entirely content in Baltimore again. They were always planning the next adventure. 

In the summer of 1969, just a few months after my grandfather died, my parents took all of us — my grandmother included — “out west.” It had been a hard year, they said, and they wanted us to have some fun. So, we’d go to Arizona and then to Disneyland. 

Of course, all we kids cared about was the Disneyland part. But the real purpose of the trip was to take my grandmother — who, unbeknownst to us children, was carrying my grandfather’s ashes — to the Grand Canyon. She wanted to go back to where their life had “started,” where it had begun to be theirs, where they’d found one another and themselves in ways they’d never anticipated. While my parents kept us distracted at the pool or sight-seeing, she met up with an old cowboy who took tourists to the bottom of the canyon on mules. Together they went to the spot — the place that had changed my grandparents. He said a cowboy prayer, while she scattered my grandfather’s ashes. I imagine the dust carried upward by warm canyon currents, an ascension of sorts. Rising, and then dispersing on the western winds. She must have breathed him in, that beloved dust. 

My grandmother had to return. To see him. To go on. Three years later, we’d move to Arizona, upending everything for my family. And a dozen years after that, we’d take her cremains to join his. A reunion in the dust. Somehow, it all made sense. And, although I still don’t comprehend it all rationally, this series of events — my grandfather and seeing the figure in the dark and my grandmother with those ashes and the trip to Arizona — changed my life. 

Galilee, said the young man. Go there. Back to where it began. You’ll see him. The Kingdom of God has come near — follow me. 

This Easter, we are invited to go back to the place where it all began. You need to know the whole story before it makes sense. You’ll see him as you follow him. 

Don’t get stuck in fear, even when people may think you’re nuts or don’t understand what you’ve seen. When nothing seems right. When the tomb is empty. When you’ve encountered the Unexpected One. He lives. You will see him. It may well be a miracle, but it is most surely a journey. 

Take my word for it.

Dr. Diana Butler Bass, author, church historian, public theologian, popular speaker is one of America’s most trusted commentators on religion and contemporary spirituality. Her blog, The Cottage, is one of the most widely read blogs on Substack.