Helpless Waiting

By Justin Rossow

This Easter I was struck by a detail I don’t remember seeing before. In fact, I didn’t even see it this year until my second or third reading of Mark’s resurrection account. And I would have probably missed it again except for the fact that I have recently been doing some work on Sabbath and rest.

Mark 16:1 says, “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” Then, in verse 2, we get another indication of time: “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”

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

Mark 16:1-2 (ESV)

I’ve always read that as one action: the women got up on Sunday morning, bought spices, and went to the tomb. But that’s not actually what Mark says.

Part of the complication is cultural: I’m not used to a day starting with sundown. I don’t have “going to bed” as one of the first things on my agenda for a busy day. I start the day by waking up and getting busy. Against my experience, the Old Testament uses sundown as the beginning of a new day. That “sleep first” paradigm is a rhythm of life reminder that highlights our dependence on God for all things. But I find it more natural to think of the day starting with sunrise, so I naturally read over the reference to the Sabbath ending in verse 1 and compress it into the day starting with sunrise in verse 2.

The other complicating factor is linguistic. Or maybe it’s cultural, too: culture and language are intertwined. I vaguely remember being taught (and I looked it up, just to make sure) that Mark sometimes uses Hebrew indicators for times or days, and sometimes he slips into Greco-Roman usage. It’s natural for Mark and Mark’s readers to live in both worlds at the same time.

So here’s what’s going on in Mark 16: The women have been observing the Sabbath day of rest since just before sundown on Good Friday evening when they saw where Jesus was laid in the tomb. Now, as soon as the Sabbath was past (Hebrew reckoning)in other words, after sundown on Saturday night—they run out to buy spices so they can be ready to go to the tomb as soon as they can, which will have to wait until sunrise. (I’m told you can still observe a similar phenomenon in Orthodox Jewish communities today: as soon as the Sabbath is over, right after sundown on what we consider Saturday night, people make a quick grocery run to pick up items they will need in the morning but that they couldn’t shop for on the Sabbath.) So for these women, it’s already Easter Sunday on the Hebrew calendar; they make a spice run to their local market but have to go to bed before they can do anything else.

Then, very early on the first day of the week, as soon as the sun was up (Greco-Roman reckoning), the women head to the tomb. It’s a two-step process with hours of darkness in between:  first, they run out to get spices as soon as the Sabbath is past; then, after the night is over, they go to the tomb.

Maybe that detail doesn’t change much about the actual story of Easter. But it does highlight an important feature I would have otherwise missed. These faithful women are doing what they can, what they know to do, as soon and as quickly as they can; and still they are left helplessly waiting.

Imagine the grief and the frustration and the futility of having the embalming spices on hand, but having to wait for the light of day. Imagine how helpless they must have felt, when they could do nothing more than they had already done; when they had nothing left to do but wait.

I know that kind of frustrated, helpless, impotent waiting. I remember the phone call that said my sister had sustained a severe head injury in a car accident. The next few hours were filled with a flurry of activity to make travel plans and get on a plane and arrive at the hospital fearing I might even be too late to say good-bye. And then, after I saw my unconscious sister in her hospital bed, there came long hours of helpless waiting. Of course we prayed. But mostly we waited, because there was nothing else to do. Our complete dependence on Jesus was painfully obvious.

Recently, my friend Amy watched as her elderly father took a turn for the worse. Her family experienced a flurry of activity as details about hospice care and other medical and legal decision had to be taken care of. And then came the waiting: days and weeks where even her dad got tired of the wait. “He’s ready,” she told me. “He just wants to go home.”

I’ve watched and waited with loved ones as they have waited to die, and the sense of helplessness and frustration often reminds me of Sonnet 19 by John Milton, a famous poem by a famous poet I got to know back in my English Major days.

John Milton, already an accomplished author, went completely blind (due in part to his prolific writing) when he was only 43 year old. Sonnet 19 was written in response to that blindness, and is often known by its opening lines: “When I consider how my light is spent / Ere half my days …”

Milton feels helpless and useless. If he can’t see, how can he write? If he can’t write, what good is he? How does God expect him to do anything worthwhile if that God-given talent is buried? “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” Milton asks. How am I supposed to give an account of myself before God if God has allowed this blindness? Milton knows helpless waiting and complete dependence.

Milton’s own response to his question has been a comfort to me. After wondering if he is off the hook for faithful service to God because of his blindness, Milton imagines God as King, and thinks of all the servants the Almighty has, and recalls that God doesn’t need any of Milton’s work or talent to rule the world. Then Milton sees a place in the court for those who aren’t currently out on assignment for the King: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

When I am in the midst of what feels like helpless waiting, when I can’t do anything but depend of Jesus, I remember Milton’s words, spoken from the depth of his own helpless inactivity: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Sometime, the only faithful action you can take is to wait; and waiting in helpless dependence on Jesus is always a way of providing faithful service to the King.

That moment when you have nothing left to do and so you turn to Jesus and wait—that moment is a beautiful and intimate expression of faith and trust, no matter what happens next. When we stand and wait on the bidding of the King, we don’t know what form our faithful service will take. But we entrust whatever comes next to the wisdom of the King.

John Milton was right to see even his helpless waiting as a kind of faithful service. What he didn’t know was how wrong he was about the end of his writing career. Milton didn’t even begin work his most famous work, Paradise Lost—one of the most important epic poems in all of English Literature—until after he was completely blind and thought he would never write again.

Not every story of helpless waiting ends the same way. Amy did eventually bury her father, and his faithful waiting for death is now a faithful waiting for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. My sister, Brooke, made a somewhat miraculous recovery from that closed-head trauma and continues to actively serve the King; her thick, curly hair completely covers the scar.

As for those women at the tomb, they give me hope in my times of helpless waiting. They did what they knew to do—they ran out to buy spices as soon as they could, and then got stuck having to wait. In their frustration, in their grief, in their waiting, they didn’t know, they didn’t understand, they couldn’t have imagined that their own frustrated plans would come to nothing. The spices they had rushed out to buy as soon as the Sabbath was over never got used the next morning: the dead body they were going to anoint wasn’t dead anymore.

Those faithful women leave the empty tomb terrified; they don’t say anything to anyone because they were gripped with fear (Mark 16:8). Their frustration and inactivity had been for nothing; their helpless waiting was misguided and misinformed; they bought funeral spices at great personal expense, but to no end. Nevertheless, the Jesus whom they loved and longed for was faithful, transforming their helpless waiting into beautiful service rendered to the King.

The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Even if your waiting feels helpless, even if your inactivity feels frustrating or misguided, even if you are waiting for something you don’t want or can’t control, that helpless inaction is an expression of complete dependence on Jesus. No matter what happens next, the risen Jesus holds your future and your eternity.

When you feel helpless and tired of waiting, remember those faithful women and their superfluous spices. Remember the faithfulness of the risen Jesus. And recall the words of the poet: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

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