When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of James), and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples, and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott says, “We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. The writer’s job is to turn the unspeakable into words – not just any words, but if we can, into rhythm and blues.”
It was not a door in a castle but a stone before a tomb that compelled many to turn the unspeakable into words, first through spoken tradition passed on to those who gathered in secret, and then with words were copied onto papyrus and vellum - the earliest forms of paper. Four of those stories of this unspeakable event of Easter morning, and all that led up to it, have come to be known to us as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Or Gospels if you prefer, but I prefer to think of all four accounts as pointing to one truth, each with its own style, its own perspective, its own agenda and its own purpose for exposing the unexposed.
Today, we hear the words of Mark's Gospel, which is believed to be the earliest of the four canonized Gospels. It's the shortest version, written in a memorable style that makes it easy to recite out loud, or to tell around camp fires or tables in peoples' homes. Mark uses words that are active and to the point, without as much elaborations as the later writers. Mark tells the stories of Jesus' early ministry with an urgency conveyed by the repeated use words like “immediately” and “soon” and “now” and the stories and parables tumble out at an almost hectic pace.
That is, until we get to the passages leading up to the moment of Jesus' crucifixion and death, which Bill and I just read. The pace slows, and the dialogue becomes more expansive, the description more detailed. It's as though Mark almost rushes through the beginning of the story in order to get to the “good” part - this part – the moment of truth.
But that ending – what happened there? It reminds me of a book my daughter and I just read – a real page turner that keeps you wrapped up in the story right up until the the ending, and then bam – that's it? So many unanswered questions! So many possible ways the story could go! Or like the many movies nowadays that you know were written with sequels in mind, or the way those binge-watchable TV shows end each episode so that you can't help going on to the next, and the next one after that, and the next.
But this cliffhanger that ends with Mary standing afraid, before the tomb - that's all Mark wrote – or was it?? Chapter 16 is notably shorter than the other chapters of Mark, notably lacking the same form and structure. And apparently so many other readers were bothered by this ending that, in time, additional possible endings were added to those later copies of Mark's Gospel, adding on to the rolls of Papyrus and copying old words with new ink. And so now, most Bible versions also give the option of the the “Shorter Ending”:
“And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward, Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Certainly not Mark's writing style – is that a better ending?
You might also find the longer ending of Mark, which goes on for several paragraphs and, as in the other three Gospels, includes an actual appearance of the risen Christ, who first “upbraids” the disciples for their lack of faith and stubbornness, and then predicts signs of the true believers, such as casting out demons, speaking in tongues, picking up snakes and drinking poisons without harm, as well as the ability to perform healing miracles.” We may need to check with some of our Apostolic Pentecostal brothers and sisters in faith to learn more about what that ending means!
What about the other Gospels? Matthew's Gospel starts of similarly to Mark, but then Jesus shows up and gives the women the courage they need to spread the good news; the chief priests and the Roman guards (the bad guys) get blamed, and the disciples are reunited with their leader and charged to go out and make disciples of all nations.
Luke's Gospel gives even more dialogue to the women who meet Jesus at the tomb, showing how Mary overcomes her fear to proclaim the good news, how the disciples still do not believe it until sits at the table Jesus and breaks bread with them, and then Luke wraps it all up in the happy ending “. . . and they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually at the temple, praising God!'
John's Gospel adds a scene for doubting Thomas, and concludes with the author's note that the purpose of that particular Gospel is so that the reader may believe in Jesus Christ, and believing, may have eternal life.
But we get none of that from Mark. What happened? Did part of the papyrus scroll break off and get lost? Did the ink fade from the vellum and they just couldn't read the ending? Or was this abrupt ending part of Mark's design, Mark's purpose, Mark's way of exposing the unexposed?
Can we make Mark's ending work? The women here are afraid. They don't go tell anyone what they saw. Jesus doesn't even make an appearance here! Could this possibly be what Mark intended? So much ambiguity? So much uncertainty? How could this be considered such Good News that those first believers would preserve Mark's word's along side those of Matthew, Luke and John?
The standard for Canonization – for choosing which stories would be preserved in the Holy Bible – was truth; truth as understood by church tradition and human experience; truth that was greater than any individual contradictions from story to story; truth that is evident yet today because of the way it resonates with what is going on in our individual lives; with what is happening right now.
According to Mark, this was the truth of looking into the empty tomb:
It's the truth of running almost out of control with an expectation of death, even while aching to find hope.
It's the truth of not getting answers.
It's the truth of being afraid.
And it's the truth of returning to that place where we through our failures and losses were buried deep; the truth of looking for Jesus in that darkness, and finding that He is not there.
It's the truth of those who meet us there, at that uncertain place, and yet witness to life and resurrection in the face of all of that; those who assure us that Christ is alive and waiting for us now, waiting for us to come to Him soon; to be resurrected ourselves from the lies of this world, and to be alive in His truth.
Could that possibly be the hidden truth that Mark wrote to expose? Or, if not Mark, could this ending be the work of the Holy Spirit, the co-author of every truth revealed by God's word? Could this broken ending, like the broken body of our savior, be an intentional point of connection; a means of reconciliation; a way of bringing our broken lives together and making us one with that moment of resurrection?
There is enough in this world to witness to what makes us afraid – violence, hatred, betrayal, that we are not enough. But Christ rose from the tomb to expose that death is not the ending; Christ is God's living Word, used to reveal to us the life, love and hope that is blooming all around us. We can run ourselves ragged, looking for death. Or we can let our eyes be opened, and see:
The Tomb is Empty
Christ is not there.
But we will see him. We will meet him at this table, and anywhere that truth is revealed by God's living Word, Jesus the Christ. Thanks be to God for our risen Lord! Alleluia! Amen!