“Resurrection” along Harriet Tubman’s Pathway to Freedom

March 22, 2018 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Lent is traditionally a time for Christians to reflect, (re)affirm our baptismal identity, who we are and who we are called to be, and to commit to living faith in more life-giving ways.

Our liturgical year takes us on a journey that features the Gospel according to Mark – and as far as Easter goes, it can feel a bit like the latest independent film. There’s not the happily-ever-after payoff that we’ve come to crave.

Mark doesn’t finish the story. Mark’s Gospel completes the Easter story just after Jesus rises from the dead. Most scholars believe Mark ends at Mark 16:8, in which the three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, all flee the empty tomb trembling, and tell no one what they saw. In later manuscripts, a longer ending was added that glosses over Jesus’ post-resurrection time on Earth.

This text feels like resurrection and, therefore, Easter unresolved to most members of our congregations. We want to marvel at Jesus walking alongside disciples and talking with them without them recognizing who he is – and then a sudden jolt of astonished joy as he reveals himself to them. We want the Jesus of miracles to cap off our story – not the frightened women who told no one. What kind of ending is that?

Lent provides us time reflecting, thinking, praying and preparing – but what are we preparing for if not the miracles of the risen Christ?  Maybe you’ve read about or witnessed new life rising on your journey?

Harriet Tubman’s resurrection

Harriet Tubman. By Artist: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 (National Portrait Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One such “resurrection” occurred to me during my Lenten journey to the NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, Maryland and around the Lent and Easter theme of “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying and Rising in a Wilderness Church.” Being in Baltimore reminded me of a story I read about Harriet Tubman, the famous African-American woman who took and then led countless others on the pathway to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Tubman operated primarily across the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore.

Ron Stodghill’s 2017 interactive article in The New York Times retraces Tubman’s steps with maps, stories, and photographs. One of his stops and Tubman’s first stood out to me and reminds me that new life often begins in a place of death.  In this case, the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery found just outside of Preston, Maryland. The Choptank River feeds the great Chesapeake on the eastern shore of the bay, and Marsh River that flows right alongside the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery must have been a way for slaves on the run to navigate. You see, Tubman’s path to freedom in 1849, to new life, to resurrection, you might say, started in that graveyard… and so did many others that she met including her brother and parents about a decade later.

We sing, proclaim, and praise at Easter the “resurrection of the body.” New life given to human bodies captured behind stones they cannot roll away on their own is what Eastertide looks like. It starts with locating and meeting up with others in places that look like death to walk a pathway of freedom together – just as Harriet Tubman met fleeing slaves in a graveyard in Maryland more than 150 years ago.

The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, uses the end of Mark’s gospel as a charge. He tells the newly minted graduates to “finish the story!” That is, in fact, what Harriet Tubman did. She finished the story for herself, and for many, many others.

In my work with the Theological Education Fund at the Presbyterian Foundation, I meet seminary graduates constantly who are indeed ready to finish the story. Our churches are ready to receive them as architects of those stories, and to help these congregations write their own.

I wonder how we will finish the story of new life?  Will we run in fear and tell no one or help lead others to new life?

How will you finish the story?  What is your longer ending to Mark’s Gospel?