“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint Jesus. Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had just come up, they were going to the tomb.
They kept saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Then they looked up and saw that the stone had been rolled away. (For it was a very large stone.) As they went into the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were utterly astonished.
But he said to them, “Stop being astonished! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look at the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
So they left the tomb and ran away, for shock and astonishment had overwhelmed them. They didn’t say a thing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
If you were here two days ago – on Good Friday – you would have noticed a more somber, thoughtful feel when you came in – a deliberate quietness.
The furniture was draped in black. We were encouraged not to talk. The music was more subdued.
It wasn’t a depressing quietness – devoid of light or hope or noise. In fact, there was a degree of artificiality about our efforts to match the mood of the original Good Friday – when the mood was black and the grief was real … because we all knew we would get to Sunday … when the mood would lift and we could be loud and chatty (again) … and joyful (with the color back)!
That is the normal progression through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day (from reflective quietness to raucous joy), but that’s not quite where we get to in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. We don’t quite get to the joy bit.
You may have noticed (if you had a Bible with you and were reading along) that Mark’s Gospel has three possible endings. The first and most ancient ending was what we had read out; but there is a slightly longer version which adds a sentence or two, and another longer ending of 11 verses (which is in most Bibles if you want to have a look later).
These additional endings weren’t read out this morning because, almost certainly, they weren’t written by Mark – the language is different, the vocabulary is different and the earliest versions of Mark’s Gospel don’t have them.
They were added on later, and the likely reason they were added on is that the earliest version ends so ABRUPTLY and prematurely, it seems.
It is like you are reading your child a story – and just before you get to the end (just a few sentences shy of the climax); you close the book and say, ‘That’s it! Off to sleep now!’ You couldn’t do it with a child. They wouldn’t let you! They would be saying, ‘Tell me, tell me … how does it end? Don’t stop yet!’
It’s like that with the first ending of Mark’s Gospel. Up until it ends, Mark is similar to the other Gospels. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome arrive at the tomb of Jesus early on Sunday morning wondering how they will be able to move the large stone covering the tomb – only to find it already moved – and an angel there telling them that Jesus was not there; he had risen!
The basic story line is the same as the other Gospels (with one or two variations), but then the story just stops.
The angel’s final words are, ‘Go, tell his disciples (and Peter) that he is going ahead of you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told you,’ but what do the women do, verse 8, ‘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.’
That’s it! The last authentic words of Mark’s Gospel are: ‘They were afraid.’
Mark’s Gospel ends on the note of fear, not joy – or faith. It stops just shy of Easter joy; just before the disciples get to see and hear and touch the risen Jesus.
You can understand the felt need to finish the story which, in the case of the 2 additional endings, happened sometime in the early to mid second century.
So abrupt and negatively abrupt is this ending that scholars have speculated that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel was longer, but was lost (somehow); that before it could be copied the ending was misplaced or ripped off … or burnt (or whatever).
MAYBE; MAYBE, but the fact is that all we have of Mark’s ending is this one … and actually, I am kind of glad it ends that way – for 2 reasons:
Firstly, it matches our own experience of faith and doubt. What these final verses do is bring us to a water-shed moment in the experience of Mary, Mary and Salome – between despair and hope, between anguish and joy, between disillusionment and new-found purpose.
Mark’s ending captures this moment, freezes it in time – and invites us (I think) to reflect on its significance; to identify (as I think we probably can) with the experience of these women of not quite knowing what to make of this amazing announcement of the angel – whether to believe it or not to believe it.
Resurrections aren’t the sorts of things that happen every day. In fact, that is one reason why these three women (and the disciples and everyone else) weren’t expecting Jesus to resurrect. First century Jews believed in resurrection, but they also believed that the resurrection was reserved for the end of time – for the end of history.
Mary, Mary and Salome were not expecting to see Jesus alive again – which goes a long way towards explaining how stunned they were (to begin with) and of how fearful they were.
The normal contours of their life view was being torn apart – so much so that they couldn’t make sense of what was happening. It shocked them. It stunned them into temporary silence and fear.
Resurrections aren’t any easier for us to accept or understand.
Dead people don’t normally rise!
My dad passed away a few years ago. I know where he is (or, at least, where his body is)! I don’t expect to see him again – at least in this life. It would scare me witless if I did see him – or to be told that he was alive!
People have been dying and have stayed dead for as long as human beings have existed. The natural animal world (members of which we are) has had death written all over it (into its DNA) for hundreds of thousands, in fact, millions of years.
It is not easy for us to believe in an exception – to the seemingly universal law of death and decay.
Just as it caught these women by surprise, it catches us by surprise; it challenges our well founded beliefs to believe in a risen Jesus.
I am grateful for Mark’s ending – because it implicitly acknowledges – it does not belittle – my own perplexity and bewilderment – and occasional fierce doubt.
This short passage gives space for doubt and uncertainty – something which the church, down through the years (and sometimes in its creeds) hasn’t always been comfortable with.
Sometimes life’s experiences do make us doubt, do make us wonder … do occasion a re-think … do bring us to a place where we have to re-think the contours of our faith and life view.
It is OK to doubt. It is OK to express doubt. Doubt, actually, is very often the engine room of new discovery.
Which leads on to the second reason that I am grateful for this short and abruptly ending passage of Scripture. I am glad it is like this because it is an open-ended ending. It doesn’t close off the story, but rather invites us, its readers, into further exploration and reflection.
It leaves the way open for these longer endings; for other Gospels to be written – each with their own answers to the questions that are posed by this passage; it invites the sorts of reflections that have been taking place within and outside of the church – to this present day; and we are not finished reflecting yet!
It invites us to ask, ‘How do we understand this announcement by the angel, ‘He is not here. He is risen!’ What does the resurrection mean for us
It invites us to ask the even more basic question, ‘Is Jesus really alive? Can we trust this announcement? Can we trust this text, or is it just a made-up story, a legend?’ That is certainly a question we are inclined to ask.
Is this just an ancient attempt to obscure the fact that we are all going to die – and cease to be – that this life is all we’ve got?!!
That’s the direction of thinking for a lot of people these days – to concentrate on the present because we don’t know what the future holds.
The trouble is that this story, when you get into it, keeps troubling you in a different direction. It keeps raising questions that aren’t so easy to answer.
For example, what was it that caused these women disciples (and their male colleagues) to abandon their long-held and deeply entrenched view – that resurrection from the dead is future?
How does one account for the transition from bleak and despairing Good Friday to Easter day joy; a joy that we have every good reason to believe launched the Christian movement?
How does one account for the prominence given to women in this story? Mark only has women in his ending. The other Gospels similarly give prominence to woman as the first ear and eye witnesses of the resurrection.
Men making up the story wouldn’t have written it that way – especially in a first century context where the testimony of a woman was considered to be next to worthless.
The resurrection story is not easy to dismiss as legend or myth – or as a made up story designed to deceive.
Once you let yourself start asking questions like this, the answers will disturb you in the direction of faith. They won’t compel faith. They don’t demand faith – but they will leave room for faith.
If you let them, they will draw you into something like the encounter Mary, Mary and Salome were about to have with the risen Jesus; they will enable you (and me) to make (and keep making) the transition from fear and doubt and puzzlement to faith and joy and hope.
May that be your experience and mine this Easter! Amen.
First Preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, Easter 2009.
Rev Dr Keith Mascord
Since lecturing at Moore Theological College in philosophy & theology, Keith has worked as a parish priest in the South of Sydney.
Keith is also well known for his prophetic ‘Open Letter’ to the Sydney Anglican church