The last time I preached Easter morning I chose John’s gospel, the most detailed and complicated version of the Easter story. It’s the one where two of the male disciples go to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, but then run off, leaving Mary alone weeping, and she meets the risen Christ.
This morning I wanted to listen to Mark’s account. It’s the earliest and simplest version, and it seemed to me that after the year we have been through, we could connect with the deep uncertainties reflected in Mark’s telling of the story.
Mark’s Easter story is in some ways also the most interesting. If you look in any modern Bible, you will find that right after the account we heard this morning, somewhere in parentheses, it will say “The short ending”. And there will be a space, and then another twelve verses, and another parentheses enclosing the description “the longer ending”. The additional twelve verses include three resurrection appearances (including a commissioning of the disciples by Jesus) and the ascension. Older Bibles, including the King James’ Version, don’t differentiate two endings, but simply include all 20 verses of chapter 16.
Modern scholarship has determined that there is an issue with what past generations accepted as the ending of Mark’s gospel. The “long ending” of Mark is actually a compilation of endings by authors other than the “Mark” who is responsible for the rest of the gospel. It is generally accepted, today, that the original text ended just as we heard it:
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
At some point, generations and many decades later, other authors, unsatisfied by Mark’s ending, tacked on additional material.
Can you imagine why? Can you see what must have bothered them about the original ending? Did you notice, as we listened today, what was missing from Mark’s Easter morning story?
Mark’s original ending has no resurrection appearance. Jesus is not there. The resurrected Christ is missing: all we have is the word of the unidentified “young man” – presumably an angelic messenger – telling the women that “he has been raised” and “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” There is nothing that testifies to proof of the resurrection. For many Christians – though not all – the truth of the gospel story depends on a literal, bodily resurrection. No wonder that those later scribes, laboriously making copies of the sacred texts long before the printing press, felt that they just HAD to improve upon Mark’s ending.
So why didn’t Mark go further? As he was writing, perhaps 35 years after Jesus’ death, he must have known stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Immersed as he was in the story, he has to have appreciated what impact it would make to conclude his testimony by reporting that the women were terrified and didn’t tell anyone.
Many, in the recent decades since it became clear where Mark originally ended his story, have thought and written about this provocative question. I’d like to share and reflect with you on two observations that seem compelling to me.
Firstly – Mark wanted to emphasize the women’s fear and uncertainty, rather than rushing into the happy resolution of a resurrection appearance. Perhaps he wanted to allow us to identify fully with their experience, which is in so many ways like our own.
Mark's Easter Gospel ends with silence rather than "Alleluia!" “Alleluia” was simply not the word the women said at the end of their long night of waiting. “Alleluia” is not what they were preparing to say when the Sabbath was over as they made their way to the tomb. They had been there on Friday when Jesus died and the sky turned dark at midday. Mark remembers all three women by name: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They looked on from a distance when Jesus was crucified. Mary Magdalene had been there when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus' lifeless body in linen and laid him in the tomb.
They asked a pressing question as they made their way toward the grave: "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they neared the tomb they saw that the stone had already been rolled aside. But even then, they didn't shout Alleluia. Even after they heard the young man in white tell them that Jesus had been raised, they didn't shout "Christ is risen!" That's what we might want them to say, but they didn't behave as we would like.
They fled from the tomb for "terror and amazement had seized them." The words are even stronger in Greek: tromos (trauma) and ecstasis (ecstasy). So not just “fear and amazement” but trauma and ecstasy had taken hold of them. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark's Gospel ends in silence and Jesus never appears.
Of all the Easter Gospels, Mark's story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood, and we can do so easily enough. The three women didn't see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn't hear Jesus call their names (as did Mary in John’s Easter story). Neither have we. They didn’t have the option to touch his wounded hands any more than we have. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters.
Haven’t we, too, known those moments of desolation in these past months of watching millions die of the virus that has ravaged the world? Haven’t we known the deep ache of bereavement? Haven’t we shared the fear of an unknown future?
Despite that morning’s fear, however, the women did renew their courage and their trust: we know they did. Between the women's experience at the empty tomb and Mark's writing, the three women did speak -- or we wouldn't know the story. They did speak, or we would not be here today.
The second reason Mark wrote the ending he did, suggest some commentators, is that it invites us into the story - not only by showing us how much these first disciples’ experience is like our own, but by suggesting that the gospel narrative is left for us, the hearers, to complete. This is what’s really important about today’s gospel.
In November, on the Second Sunday of Advent, our gospel reading was the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Mark’s first sentence is this: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark doesn’t just mean that the first sentence he writes begins the story. He means that the whole story he tells – of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, of his healing and feeding and preaching, of his suffering and death – AND EVEN OF AN EMPTY TOMB AND THREE FLEEING, FRIGHTENED WOMEN – is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
The story of the good news has continued with every generation who have felt fear and amazement at Jesus’ empty tomb and at all of the places where loss and fear touched their lives, but have lived lives of faith and service despite it. The story continues with us. Every time we confront our own moments of uncertainty, we are being told that Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised, and has gone ahead of us to Galilee – to the ordinary places where we live our lives – and we will see and experience him there.
The empty tomb promises an open future in which the Risen One goes ahead us as our companion and guide. Christ lives, and is visible to us in all of the dramatic resurrection moments we experience in our lives, where new life and new hope springs out what seemed dead and hopeless, as well as in the everyday gifts and blessings of relationship and of the opportunity we enjoy, every day, of making a difference. Christ is alive and in Christ’s resurrection, we can face the future with strength, and courage, and wisdom as we take our place as Christ’s body, as Christ’s voice and heart and hands and feet in serving the world.
Alleluia. Christ is Risen.
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