CHICAGO – When pastors gaze upon their flocks after sunrise on Sunday, many will see congregations cast in shadows – haunted by diminishing investments and the prospect of losing jobs and homes.

Amid this fear and doubt, the clergy must lead the faithful to a message of hope – the miracle of the resurrection commemorated at Easter.

To do it, many will rely on the Gospel of Mark, a tale that embodies the anxiety of confronting the unknown. Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life and death, but it closes with a cliffhanger: Three women roll away the stone at his tomb, only to tremble with fear at finding the crypt bare.

It is that sensation of emptiness, terror and mystery that is drawing pastors to this scripture.

“I think there’s a connection between those who have lost jobs or have had their hours cut or face medical uncertainties and these women who don’t know what lies in the future,” said the Rev. Tony Dusso, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Oak Forest, Ill.

“Today, I think the resurrection is a story that reminds us that no matter what we face, no matter what our fears are, we can look forward and ahead with hope.”

Dusso’s congregation is one of a handful in the Chicago area whose marquees celebrate the resurrection year round. Whether the Resurrection name emerged from consolidation of churches, or from ambitious plans to revive a ministry, the moniker symbolizes the hope of a new day.

“With the financial problems that many are experiencing, unemployment and fear of getting laid off, I think there’s more need for faith in resurrection this year,” said the Rev. Thomas Tivy of Resurrection Roman Catholic Church. “Hope is the main message.”

Four Gospels tell the story of Easter: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Tivy and others say the Gospel of Mark offers a particularly “crisp and stark” approach to the tale. Catholics often read it at the Saturday night Easter vigil as a precursor to the joyful resolution on Easter morning, recounted in the Gospel of John.

While the Gospel of John is a popular choice every Easter, Mark is another option this year for many Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches who follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of biblical texts. Churches committed to the lectionary rotate their focus on Matthew, Mark or Luke, and the most recent Advent kicked off the Year of Mark.

The Rev. Brian Hiortdahl, pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Lakeview, attributes that timing to divine providence. The Gospel of Mark reflects a universal state of limbo; like a season finale, it leaves the reader wanting more. The Greek translation of Mark even stops in the middle of a sentence.

“The future is wide open. We can participate in it, but we’re not in charge, and we are a people who like to be in charge of stuff,” he said. “We like to predict. We like to figure out when the economy is going to get better and plan for it. Resurrection just blows all of that away.”

In his 12 years as a pastor, Dusso said he has preached on Mark only occasionally and usually for shock value.

“This year, it’s not about shock,” he said. “It’s not about waking us up that this resurrection is more than chocolate bunnies. It really is a message for this year that transcends that. It’s about our conditions today in 2009.”

Dusso said each of the Gospels has a theme that captures the tenor of the season. John features a reassuring reunion between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Matthew and Luke emphasize the disciples and their doubt.

Beth Felker Jones, an assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College, said that diversity is an argument for preserving the canon despite movements throughout church history to synthesize the gospels into one book.

“The church has always resisted hammering it out into one story. They keep the four,” Felker Jones said. “All four of these portraits of what Jesus has done speak to different communities, different needs, different emotions.” Her husband, a Methodist pastor, will base his Easter sermon on Mark.

Scholarly debate about Christ’s resurrection has focused on whether Jesus really rose bodily from the dead or whether the story is more of a metaphor for personal, spiritual and community renewal. Congregants of churches named for the miracle recognize both. They especially recognize the restorative potential of their communities.

Gloria Thorne has been a member of Church of the Resurrection in Oak Forest ever since its inaugural worship service on Easter more than 40 years ago. Since then, cancer and other illnesses have claimed members of her family and threatened to take her. With each loss and struggle, the congregation has brought Thorne back to life.

“The name of the church seems to fit in with all the people,” said Thorne, 80. “When you see those people, you know there’s hope in the way they reach out to others in Christ’s name.”


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