The Good News of “Holy Terror”

As we begin our Holy Week journey toward the cross, we know already that the story ends with the good news of resurrection. But Mark gives us a different take on Jesus’ resurrection than we typically think of.

Here are the (most likely*) final words of Mark’s Gospel: “So [Mary, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fear, even terror? How is this good news?

There’s a long history in the Bible of “holy fear,” even “holy terror,” in the presence of God. This isn’t (normally) because God is angry or abusive, but because God is so…absolutely other. “Holy,” to use the biblical language. When we humans find ourselves in the absolute presence of the transcendent God, we realize that God is not like we had imagined: God is so much greater than we had ever imagined.

This biblical thread finds its way into Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus. When Jesus teaches, people are “astounded.” When Jesus casts out demons, they are “in awe.” When Jesus heals, they are “stunned.” When Jesus walks on the water, his disciples are “terrified.” When Jesus calms the storm, they literally “fear with a great fear.” “Who is this,” they ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So we really shouldn’t be surprised when Mark ends his Gospel with these same words, following this long biblical tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has revealed God’s self in all God’s fullness: in life rising out of death, in peace growing out of violence, in liberation bursting out of oppression, in love blooming in the midst of hate. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has blown the doors off all our expectations of who God is and what God does.

This Easter may we, like the two Marys and Salome, come face to face with God in the resurrected Jesus, so that the walls we build around God might be shattered in the revelation of God’s life and peace and liberation and love. This is a good “holy terror.” This is good news.

* Mark’s Gospel has several different endings in ancient manuscripts of Mark. Most textual critics think Mark’s Gospel originally ended here, at Mark 16:8. Later scribes weren’t satisfied with this ending so they added their own or borrowed from the other Gospels.


1 thought on “The Good News of “Holy Terror”

  1. Good post. Mark is the gospel of mystery. Matthew, Luke, and even John labor to reveal what is latent in Mark (e.g., cf Mk 8:19-21; Mt 16:12). In Mark, the disciples, though uncomprehending, heed Jesus’s words until the end in Gethsemane when they fall asleep against Jesus’s command. Jesus must return and intervene to awaken them. Likewise, the women will not relate the word given by the messenger unless Jesus intervenes. Since we read what the women heard at the tomb we can surmise that Jesus did intervene. And by similar implication Jesus will intervene and appear to the male disciples; if he had not done so we could not read about the transfiguration (Mk 9:9). The disciples’ story is that of Israel itself, which was not put right by the message delivered by angels (Acts 7:53) and required the personal intervention of the Lord. Again, what Mark implies, the other evangelists openly declare.

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