Mark’s gospel is my favorite. I love how it’s so full of immediacy. His characterization of the disciples is helpful for me: they aren’t the brightest tools in the shed, and it’s amazing they ever got it.
But his gospel ending is sometimes hard. No resurrection appearances from Jesus at all. Just the women fleeing in terror and amazement.
Yet there is Easter joy to be found there. Here are my thoughts on the Last of the days of the Holy Triduum.
Easter Day 2012—Mark 16:1-8
It’s meager, isn’t it? The end of Mark’s gospel that we just heard, it’s pretty slim in terms of greatness about the resurrection of Jesus. You did notice, didn’t you, that Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance? You may want something tangible, but Mark leaves it just like that.
The women come to the tomb just after sunup on the first day of the week, and they worry about who will roll away the huge stone. But they find that the work has already been done for them, and then they discover this young man in white inside the tomb. He says to them, “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.” And Mark ends his gospel with these words: “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.” Unsettling to be sure. And if you read it in the Greek, it ends even more abruptly. A word for word literal translation would be: “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for . . . .”
If you read Mark’s last chapter in your own Bible, you will notice that there are some endings added on where Jesus appears. However, these endings will be flagged by some brackets, and a footnote explaining that the earliest manuscripts don’t contain them. It seems that some people along the way got just as concerned by Mark’s seemingly sagging ending and felt the need to prop it up. That’s like the modern day equivalent of creating a Hollywood ending.
We want that too. We want Jesus to appear nearby in the garden, comfort the women, and then they can exclaim resounding joy. But instead we get these women full of terror and amazement running out of the cemetery unable to even speak a word.
If you read Mark as a complete narrative—the way it would have been read in the Early Church—you see that the disciples never get it. They are dim-witted, messing things up, full of uncertainty and doubt about who Jesus is. They miss all the signs. After all of the miracles, the healings, all of the amazing things they saw, they just don’t get it.
In one telling sequence in particular, we watch as Jesus feeds four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The disciples collect seven baskets of leftovers. A day or two later, he climbs into a boat with them, but they forgot to pack a lunch—they only have a small loaf of bread to share. He begins teaching them, but they can’t even listen. Instead they keep pointing fingers at one another, accusing each other of forgetting to bring more than a single loaf for their journey. Jesus can’t believe what he is hearing, and asks, “Why are you talking about not having any bread? Don’t you see or understand? Don’t you remember when I broke the seven loaves? When I did, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?” “Seven,” they say to him. “Do you not yet understand?” he asks.
They don’t. And at the very end, at his crucifixion, it is the Roman Centurion who gets it when he declares, “Truly this man was God’s son.” The disciples? They had fled the scene much earlier.
And yet, the ones hearing this story read aloud to them—the new believers gathered in a house probably in Rome under the cover of night for fear of their very lives—would have known the stories of what the disciples did after the resurrection. They would have heard about Peter and John and all the rest, how they changed the world and were martyred for their faith. They would have recognized the disciples by name early on in the reading of Mark’s gospel. But these Roman believers would have wondered how the disciples who had lived lives full of faith and courage could have once been so full of doubt and uncertainty. They were probably waiting for the end of the story, assuming that this ragamuffin band of disciples would be amazingly transformed into the super apostles they had heard about. They were probably looking for that Hollywood ending.
Will Willimon, in his book titled, Remember Who You Are: Baptism as a Model for the Christian Life, claims that contrary to popular understanding, the work of baptism is a life long process, not merely a solitary event. Bishop Willimon writes, “No matter how powerful one’s baptism or how soul-shaking one’s … conversion experience, only a lifetime of death and rebirth can work so radical a transformation as God intends for his ‘new creations.’” We have a tendency to think that somehow we can arrive in the claim to being a “good Christian,” and that the journey takes little, if any work. We like to think that the Christian life “is a good way to make nice people even nicer.”
But Willimon writes, “Baptism says that our problem is not that we have a few minor moral adjustments which need to be made in us so that we can be good. Our problem is that we are so utterly enslaved [to sin and the powers of this world] that nothing less than full-scale, lifelong conversion will do.”
That is good news for us. Even though we, like the disciples, keep failing, God continues to work our salvation out in us. God keeps calling out to us and bringing us to full-scale conversion, because above all else God wants us to have fullness of life. God works in and through history in order to offer us salvation, so that our lives can be changed and transformed and so that we can be about the work of God’s kingdom.
At the end of Mark’s gospel, the very last words uttered by a character in this narrative are these: “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.” These words spoken to the women point to Jesus’ continued work among his disciples. They will see him in Galilee, and the women are told to share this message with the apostles. They seemingly do this, since the message was not snuffed out but continued on, from Galilee through Rome and all the way to Southborough.
These last instructions of Mark’s gospel are for the disciples to return to Galilee, and it is there that they will see Jesus. But who is a disciple? James, and Peter and John and Mary to be sure, but also you and me and those folks sitting in that home church so many years ago. Yes, Galilee is a physical place, but it is also found at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). To put it another way, the narrative isn’t finished. Go back to the beginning, to Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and reread Mark’s gospel, this time with fresh eyes, with the eyes of a disciple who has experienced Jesus’ death and passion. Go back and hear again of the miracles and healings, the parables and Jesus’ teaching. Just like the disciples, you didn’t get it the first time around, but like them you will eventually understand since you have experienced what they did. Now that you’ve heard it until the very end—to Jesus’ death and the visit to his empty grave—now you can experience it all again more attentively and be transformed.
You see, in real life there is rarely a Hollywood ending. The difficulties in life don’t end up on the cutting room floor. Rather God takes our doubt, our fear, our inability to fully comprehend all that the Risen Christ can do in our lives, our community and our world — God takes all these and desires to bring about full-scale conversion in us. The beauty and hope and joy of the resurrection is that Jesus Christ has conquered death. Jesus has overcome fear. He has vanquished all that paralyzes us and keeps us from being people who are about the work of his kingdom. The story of his resurrection, the account of his miraculous power, and the narrative of his redemption of this world continues on to this day. The deeds of Jesus Christ of Nazareth never end, and we are given the great joy and responsibility to take our place alongside all those disciples who have gone before us, joining with them in proclaiming the glorious power of Jesus’ resurrection.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!