Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!
If you like nice and tidy endings to stories, where all of the loose ends are brought together and all of the tensions are resolved, then the ending of Mark’s gospel is sure to disappoint, maybe even frustrate.
In telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, the climax of his gospel, not only does Mark fail to include the risen Christ anywhere in the scene, but he leaves us completely hanging as to what happens after the women find the tomb to be empty. These three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are the first witnesses of the resurrection, the first apostles, and we might expect them to be filled with joy and run out and tell everyone they know. But instead this is what we read in Mark’s closing statement. Chapter 16, verse 8: “So they, the women, went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Um…..OK. That’s all? That’s the end? What happened next? Where were they fleeing? Did they ever recover their composure to tell anyone about the experience? Have we come all this way only to be left with nothing but terror and amazement and….silence?
A more literal translation of this final verse seems even more inconclusive, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for they were gripped with tromos, trauma, and ekstasis, ecstasy, and nothing to no one they spoke, they were afraid for…” The implied dot…dot…dot at the end gets us asking the obvious question, “And…then…what?”
The heading of chapter 16 of Mark reads “The resurrection of Jesus” but could just as easily read, “The resurrection of Jesus?” The ending that we have appears to be about as satisfying as if Slumdog Millionaire had ended without us knowing whether or not he got the right answer to the final question. I wonder if the movie “Slumdog Millionaire?” would have won as many Oscars.
The women who thought they were going to care for the body of Jesus, only to find that it is not there, carry the tension of the empty tomb with them as they flee into the early morning. Rather than dancing and singing “Jai Ho,” the women are stunned with the mute button pressed on them. Their experience is too immediate to be characterized as post-traumatic stress. They exit the scene with during-traumatic stress.
That this is not the proper way to end a story that is supposedly “good news,” has been observed by scholars and readers of scripture throughout the history of the church. Some have suggested that perhaps the original ending of Mark has been lost. We don’t know what the ending would have been, but we can be assured that it brought things together in a way that is more conclusive, allowing us to breath a sigh of relief and come back from the edge of our seat because all is well. Or perhaps Mark was unable to finish as he intended — martyred or somehow pulled away from his script before being able to complete it. For those who couldn’t stand not having a proper ending, at least two alternative endings were created in the couple of centuries after Mark was written.
These new and improved endings do make it into our Bibles, you will notice, although it is sort of like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire making it into the Hall of Fame for hitting home runs. They come with a big asterisk. The footnotes in Bibles include the information that the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at v. 8, while other, later manuscripts include some combination of these two endings, a shorter version or a longer version, or both, one after the other. These endings seem to draw from themes and stories present in the other gospels. The women disciples end up spilling their guts to their male counterparts, but it doesn’t count for much. Jesus appears to different groups of people, like the walkers to Emmaus which Luke tells more fully, with no one really believing until they themselves have had the experience. Eventually a more clear mandate is made known to those who have encountered the risen Christ. They are to spread his message to the ends of the earth, similar to the Great Commission of Matthew. The point isn’t that these aren’t legitimate things to say. The point is that they weren’t there when Mark put down his pen. They’re additions, Mark with a slight injection of performance enhancing substance, and not the closing image of resurrection he intended to leave with us.
So, assuming – a good assumption, I believe — that the fat lady has indeed sung at the end of verse eight, right when the women are too numb to utter a single note, what might there be here to learn about resurrection?
Let’s back up slightly.
Consider the days immediately following a death: When a death occurs, there are things that must be done, practical things. For us, friends and family must be notified. The body must be properly cared for in whatever way has been planned – organ donations, cremation, preparation for placing it in the casket. Arrangements must be finalized for the memorial service. Jobs and other responsibilities get put on hold, details for transportation and lodging for those traveling from a distance get worked out, and people gather to mourn and celebrate the life that was. It’s a routine that is unique to every family and culture, and one of the most common and universal events of humanity. We gather together, we remember, we say goodbye. We find closure.
The three women at the tomb are the same three women who Mark names as being present at the crucifixion. The male disciples had run off for fear of their lives, but, as Mark notes, there were women disciples who looked on from a distance, among them Mary Magdelene, and Mary the mother of James, the younger and of Joses, and Salome. We’ve never heard of these women before in Mark, although the second Mary might be Jesus’ mother, but all of a sudden they are of primary importance. When the end comes, they’re the ones who are there. They watch the painful process of Jesus being placed on the cross. They are present when Jesus is dying. When the life goes out of Jesus, no doubt, they experience a profound loss of their own. Their master has died, the movement they have given so much to is in shambles, and there’s nothing left to do except what must be done when death occurs. There’s no one left but them to do it.
They don’t get to care for the body right away, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, takes it upon himself to do this, taking down the body from the cross, wrapping it in a linen cloth, and laying it in a tomb.
They intend to bring spices to anoint the body, but can’t do so until the Sabbath has ended. The sun goes down on the Sabbath, and they rise with the sun early the next morning to go do what they can do to care for the dead. They seem to be doing this on their own will. Not sure how things will work out or if it will even be possible. “Who will roll away the stone?” They know they can’t do it. At least they’ll be able to spend some time at the place they believe Jesus to be lying. Perhaps, find some closure.
In Mark, the women find the stone already rolled away and in place of Jesus, a young man, dressed in white, sitting at “the right side,” the same position the disciples had requested to sit a number of days before when Jesus had told them that they didn’t know what they were asking. Their initial alarm is met with these brief words, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But 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.”
That’s all they get. No certainty of what has really happened, no powerful angel shaking up the earth, as Matthew notes, no appearance from Jesus to speak directly to them, like the other three gospels. Just this: Jesus isn’t here, he’s going ahead of you, and you’ll see him there.
Not so conclusive, sort of the ultimate anti-closure.
Which, I’m thinking, is the point. Our desire for our experiences to fit into nice, tidy packages, our need to put a lid over the container, or the metaphorical stone over the grave, could be the very thing that keeps us from entering the kind of reality that the God of resurrection is creating. Our inclination toward comfortable resolution, our uncomfortableness with sitting on the edge of our seats and our relief with being able to sit back, kick up our feet, and savor that which has come to an end — all these are at odds with what is going on here, with what the Spirit of God appears to be up to in raising Jesus from the dead.
If Jesus isn’t where we thought he was, contained somewhere back there, or just here, but is going ahead of us, to the place we will be at next, then the world is more unpredictable than we once thought – both frightful and amazing. What traces of Christ will we find? What places has Jesus haunted that we might stumble into unaware? If the resurrected Christ is on the loose, out gallivanting around in whatever form he may choose to appear, then it’s both wonderful and disturbing.
Where will he show up? What will he look like? When will something that we thought was dead and over suddenly take on new life?
Resurrection faith involves learning to live with the unresolved.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Anglican church, has made some comments about the ending of Mark that resonate with me. He offers that the women’s silence at the end leaves us to continue the story in whatever way we will. He says, “”(Mark) invites us to consider what difference the resurrection makes. Is it a reversal of tragedy? A happy ending? A promise of revenge against the sinful judges who brought Jesus to his death? It is none of these. The resurrection comes across as radically unexpected, almost disconnected with what has gone before…. As has sometimes been said, the reader is the ‘lost ending’ of Mark. We have to discover for ourselves what difference is made by this life, this death and this disorienting mystery after the crucifixion.” (Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment)
It’s hard enough to know what to say at a funeral, but what does one say about resurrection?
We don’t know quite what to make of this. We don’t know what to say. It throws our expectations and our routines out of whack. For the women it was like undergoing shock and awe, Jesus style, and they go sprinting off into the sunrise.
Not a bad picture to be left with for the meaning of resurrection.