Text: Mark 16:1-8 (the empty tomb)
“The women fled from the tomb in terror and amazement and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
What kind of a way is this for Mark to end his Gospel? If the three women flee from the tomb and tell no one, then how does Mark ever hear about the event?
Many preachers choose to read the Gospel of John’s account of the empty tomb on Easter. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene overcomes her fear and returns to the tomb a second time where she encounters the Risen Christ. Every Easter, the Lectionary recommends John. But since this is a year when Mark is read on most Sundays, the Lectionary offers the last eight verses of Mark as an alternative.
I chose to hear Mark this morning. His is the first of the four Gospels to be written and the one closest to my heart.
While Mark’s account might seem puzzling, I cherish it. The terror and amazement of the three women bring to my mind awe; and if death and resurrection are nothing else, they are awesome. As for Mark’s statement that the women tell no one, this reminds me of how difficult it can be to speak of the reality of new life in Christ. But as usual, I will try!
Mark is the earliest Gospel written. But Paul’s letters are even older; and in his letters, Paul writes of Christ’s death and resurrection as metaphors. In Galatians 2, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” For Paul, crucifixion is something experienced in the darkest moments of our lives. Likewise, for Paul, resurrection is not about physical appearances outside of a tomb in Jerusalem or on a beach in Galilee. It is about the Risen Christ living in the hearts of all who follow the Way.
Christ does not reign from a throne in Jerusalem, Paul says, but from our hearts. God does not lord it over us from heaven, but flickers as a divine spark within us.
Mark follows Paul, which may explain why he doesn’t show any resurrection appearances. Mark is the first person to write about the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, his arrest and trials, his crucifixion and burial, and his empty tomb. His account conveys deep spiritual truth. But it doesn’t include appearances of a physically resuscitated Jesus.
When Matthew rewrites Mark 15 years later, he adds a brief scene of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples in Galilee. When Luke rewrites Mark five years after that, he adds two scenes of Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem on the evening of Easter Sunday.
When John writes his quite different Gospel 30 years after Mark, he has Jesus appear to Mary outside the tomb. Another writer adds a second ending to John in which Jesus appears to the disciples on a beach on the Sea of Galilee.
While the stories of physical reappearances in Matthew, Luke, and John are beloved, I wonder if they detract from the mystery of Easter as much as adding to it.
Mark wrote the stories of the Passion of the Christ to help us live into a Way of death and resurrection. He wrote at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, an event that definitively ended the dream of new King David and the revival of his tribal god. Mark wrote about the empty tomb to show that new life can arise out of defeat and death.
When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we don’t literally walk to Jerusalem and we don’t literally suffer death. Instead, in moments of pain or disillusionment we accept Grace to rise to a life that is closer to God’s Love and closer to a realm in which sovereignty is distributed among people of good will.
According to Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to anoint the corpse of Jesus. But instead of a corpse, they find an empty tomb in which a young man dressed in white urges them return to Galilee. There they will be able to continue their ministry with the Risen Christ in their hearts.
In the empty tomb, the women experience a mystical unity. Their small dreams have been crushed, but the infinite reality of Love lives one. They learn that their mission with Jesus is not over. Presumably, they return to Galilee having been born again after participating in his death and resurrection. They return with the Risen Christ living within them.
The empty tomb is also part of our reality. It is an infinite space that God’s Grace opens in our hearts and minds when we most need it. It is a space we can enter in painful moments when our egos have been defeated and when, with joy, our unity with each other and with God is revealed.
Mystical experiences are awesome and hard to articulate. Perhaps the women tell no one about the empty tomb because they are incapable of doing so. Perhaps they communicate with actions of kindness and compassion instead. Perhaps they speak with their work for peace with justice with fellow pilgrims.
Mark writes his Gospel following Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans to show how victory can follow defeat and how rebirth can follow death. His Gospel is less about history and more about the mystery and power of Love.
Mark could have made his narrative more explicit. Like the evangelists who followed him, he could have written tales of physical reappearances by Jesus. But this might have obscured the ineffable ecstasy the women at the tomb experienced. So, he leaves it to us to follow the Way of the Cross and to experience death and rebirth for ourselves.
As Easter people, we are invited into an empty tomb to experience its infinite expanse and its timeless beauty. We are invited to pick ourselves up from the death of our illusions and return to the work of justice and love. We are invited into the mystic.
When we search for appearances of the Risen Christ in Mark, we don’t find them. But when we search inside our hearts, we find Christ living there, inspiring and encouraging us to return to our ministry in family, church, and neighbourhood.
“Christ is Risen! Risen indeed!