Scary Good News

By Pastor Seth

As the male disciples run for their lives to Galilee, fearful of their fate by association, the women stay behind to tend to the body of an enemy of the state. Mark’s Gospel prioritizes women in the resurrection narrative, the ones societally deemed as mere supporting roles taking center stage in the revelation of the Divine. Used to being told to stick to the background, to stay out of the way, to keep quiet, Mary, Mary, and Salome dare to be seen with and deemed unclean by the corpse of their beloved Christ, likely familiar with anointing and wrapping body after body before, familiar with the sight of death and smell of decay intermixed with incense and the salty taste of tears. It is these three women who receive the Good News first. While the men hide, the women show up in full knowledge that their mere presence might mean meeting a similar end as their Lord. If that’s not courage, I don’t know what is.

Expecting to greet death under the shadow of grief, these women are met with an announcement of life — charged with preaching the first sermon of the Good News by an unnamed man in a white robe. Yet, they flee in terror and don’t say a word before the original ending of the Gospel comes to a close. Unlike the other Gospel accounts, complete with a Christ cooked breakfast on the beach and a loose end tying ascension, Mark’s Gospel ends with a pregnant pause and deafening silence as the women run in fear.

As we read the account of the resurrection as told by the Gospel of Mark, I invite us to consider the question: what is so scary about the Good News?

Congregational Response

What is so scary about the Good News?

  • Encountering the unexpected
  • Faith requires courage
  • The dangers of participating in a Gospel of liberation
  • The fear of letting go of what we know and the people we love

Theological Reflection

Despite the nuance and complexity of our cognitive processes, neuroscientists agree: the brain is lazy. Like the water of a mountain stream seeking the most unobstructed route in its decent along the forest floor, our brains are wired to follow the path of least resistance along the winding peaks and valleys of our gray matter. It will do anything to reduce the time and effort it takes to perceive information and then respond to it, creating neural pathways that take us from point a to point b in the shortest distance and shortest amount of time. And biologically, it makes sense.

If we are walking through the woods and, all of the sudden, a bear comes barreling out the clearing in our direction, we wouldn’t want our brain to spend an hour trying to piece together that we are in danger. Maybe we watched a nature documentary that showed the length of a bear’s teeth and claws, or paid attention to the park ranger when she warned us not to get too close to the wildlife, or read the warning label on the can of bear spray we left in the tent. All of these instances reinforcing a neural pathway that links a bear running towards us with danger.

When it comes to cognition, our brain thrives on repetition and association. You may have heard the phrase, “what fires together, wires together.” You may have even heard it here in one of the Reconnect for Resiliency trainings led by Stephy and Suzanne. It’s a simplified explanation for an incredibly complicated process, referring to how our brains form stronger and more efficient neural pathways. It’s why when I eat banana pudding, I think of my grandmother and how she always used to make it for family gatherings; or whenever I hear Tim McGraw, I’m immediately transported to the morning commute to school in the backseat of my dad’s pickup truck. Our brains link experiences we’ve had with what they have been associated with in our lives and the feelings that come with it, and these associations and feelings linger in our consciousness.

What fires together, wires together, and the more this process is repeated, the stronger that neural pathway becomes and the more familiar the experience feels. A concept known as the mere exposure effect explains that the more we are exposed to something, the more that neural pathway is reinforced and the more likely it is for our brains to take that route. Why? — because it is familiar. The brain craves familiarity as a means of helping us know what to expect and how to respond — for the known is safe. It’s a helpful process when it comes to things like survival, remembering someone’s name, or developing a skill, but not so helpful when it comes to breaking out of harmful patterns, reframing deeply ingrained judgment, managing anxiety, or healing from trauma and internalized violence.

See this firing and wiring together and this mere exposure effect work both ways. It’s a process that reinforces neural pathways that would be considered positive, healthy, and helpful, but it can also reinforce pathways that can be harmful to our mental and physical health, too. It’s part of the reason why individuals who have survived abuse in formative years sometimes will unconsciously enter abusive relationships as adults. It is familiar; the brain knows what to expect and how to respond. It’s why it can be hard to try new things when all your life you’ve been told you’re not good enough — that authority figure or an experience you had 10 or 20 years ago popping into your head whenever you’ve mustered the unimaginable courage to put yourself out there. It’s why every time a car backfires, you’re back on the battlefield. Our brains create and reinforce these neural pathways so that we might know what to expect and, in a paradoxical kind of way, feel some sense of safety in that familiarity. It’s partly why the possibility of healing can feel so horrifically daunting because healing means stepping into an unknown.

If all our life we have walked with the expectation of suffering, well, suffering becomes the route most familiar to us. The path of pain has been mapped out, we know our coordinates and where they lead. Throw in the possibility of a different destination or a different map entirely, and we can feel utterly lost and afraid. And I wonder if that is part of what is happening in Mark’s account of the resurrection.

Walking into the inevitability of death, the aroma of anointing spices trailing the hem of their garments torn in grief, Mary, Mary, and Salome arrive on scene perplexed by an open tomb. Upon entering, an unnamed man in a white robe greets them with the possibility of life in the empty space beneath death’s linen shroud, instructing these courageous women to go and tell. But the curtain draws on the Gospel of Mark with silence and fear for parting words. Surely they have shown their bravery in the dangerous act of merely showing up. Why would they run in fear? I want to suggest that it was, perhaps, partly due to what it meant for them to go and tell.

Likely exposed from a young age to messaging and behaviors signaling to them the norm of silence, submission, and exclusion, I wonder how many times these women heard “your voice matters” before Jesus came into his ministry (likely not many); how many times they had to endure their community deeming them unclean and thus unfit for ritual due to their monthly cycle (societal control over their bodies resulting in their exclusion because of their natural biology); or how many times they had to witness spirituality from the sidelines, told to be unseen and unheard or there would be consequences. Even for the most rebellious heart and daring soul, sooner or later, some part of you would likely internalize such messaging, no matter how untrue or harmful. And through relentless repetition and association, your brain links the authority to speak with unworthiness and danger. That neural pathway becomes the strongest because it is what you have been exposed to the most, and your brain takes you down that path again and again because it is known — and what is known, is safe, even if, in reality, it is scarring.

I wonder if part of the reason for their fleeing is that, in order to go and tell, in order to preach the first sermon of the resurrection, they first had to confront the familiar trauma of not having a voice and begin the process of healing the parts of themselves convinced that they are unworthy of being heard, perhaps unworthy of healing at all. I wonder if the unknown prospect of not suffering under the weight of societal silencing anymore was perhaps scarier than feeling the familiarity of it. And so they ran in fear, despite their proven fearlessness, because their minds sought the safety of the suffering they know.

This Gospel includes an interesting detail in its resurrection account: it portrays an unnamed, seemingly human man in a robe within the tomb to greet them. Some scholars make a connection between this unnamed man and the unnamed man who ran away when Jesus was arrested a few chapters back in Mark 14:51-52: “a certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. [The soldiers] caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” These scholars argue that the link between these two individuals, perhaps the same man, seemingly implying that even those who run away in fear can still experience resurrection.

“They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid,” and, yet, we are here talking about the resurrection today. It might not have been that day or the day after, but at some point, that sermon was preached. Someone among them at some point in time took an unknown step into their healing to share the Good News — perhaps they took it together, hand in hand. It is scary and confusing and we must quite literally retrain our brain’s misguided sense of safety, but healing is possible even for those who run away from it.

If you have ever fled in fear from your own healing, hear this: it makes sense. It is not a mark of some deficiency. There is nothing wrong with you. It does not make you a coward nor does it make you weak; for the brain might be lazy when it comes to taking the path of least resistance, but it is tenacious when it comes to protecting itself. And in its own way, running back to our suffering might just be how our brain retreats back to some sense of safety. What is familiar is known, and what is known is safe. It makes sense.

Our healing, whatever that might be, is our own unique journey that takes time and patience and a whole lot of courage, and, yes, we might understandably run away from it again and again. But may we find encouragement in the knowledge that the experience of resurrection, the promise of healing, is not a one time offer but an invitation extended in perpetuity. For healing is not a hoarded resource, it has no window of opportunity. It is a door, always open, ever inviting us home to who we truly are as God’s beloved worthy enough to go and tell.