Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
When studying novels for exams, I sometimes used to ask my students which type of story they preferred. Did they like a clear beginning, middle and – especially – end, where all the loose ends are tied up, and matters are firmly resolved? Or did they prefer something a bit less neat and tidy, where the reader is left to fill in the gaps, or is faced with ambiguity or not knowing at all? Of course, sometimes a definitive conclusion is desirable, but, with some stories, the element of ‘unfinishedness’ leaves a whole range of imaginative possibilities for the reader to pursue.
It is just as well that Easter, rather than being limited to just one day a year, is an entire church season spread over a number of weeks (here we are in week 5), because resurrection takes some time to get your head around. If you look at the end of Mark’s Gospel, you will find one or two extra passages that Mary didn’t read: she finished where tonight’s lectionary said she should. The extra passages are generally regarded by scholars as an add-on, inserted later into the existing text. It clearly didn’t seem right to leave Mark’s Gospel ending – as it originally did – with a group of frightened women, who daren’t say anything to anyone once they had encountered the empty tomb. No – another section had to be tagged on, emphasising that Jesus appeared not only to the patron of this church, Mary Magdalene, but also to two people walking away from Jerusalem into the country, and then to the remaining eleven disciples.
Personally, when it comes to Mark’s Gospel, I can’t help wishing those extra verses hadn’t been added on, however noble the writers’ intentions may have been. Because for those of us who may find the physical resurrection intellectually difficult, mysterious or incredible, the original ending of Mark’s Gospel leaves in its wake so much scope for the imagination. Rather than providing a glorious climax to the story, Mark brings his fast-paced Gospel account juddering to a halt with terrified women fleeing from the tomb, not daring to tell anyone what has happened. There is no happy-ever-after Easter joy in this episode for them, and Mark spares them no blushes: they are alarmed, seized with terror and amazement, and they are afraid.
They had waited through the compulsory rest of the Jewish Sabbath, no doubt struggling with complex emotions, to anoint the body and to lavish care on it, as a necessary part of their grieving – and now the body is not there. Anyone who has mourned without a body to bury, or who is troubled by important things left unsaid to a dead person, will understand the awfulness of their situation.
If we enter into Mark’s world, we cannot rush to the incontrovertible assurance of resurrection, but are forced to come to terms with a void in which faith is stretched to its limit. In his inimitable way, Mark tests any glibness in our confidence in the resurrection by confronting us with the perplexity of an empty tomb.
There is no easy way to encounter resurrection, and Mark does not rescue the women from their confusion. But, since he has been showing his readers perplexed disciples regularly throughout his Gospel, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. He has already told us that another woman anointed Jesus’ body for burial before his death, so these women are too late to do that. Instead, although they do not know it, these women inhabit a pivotal moment in history and theology, a moment in which, to use Gospel terminology, ‘the time is fulfilled’. As an Easter collect puts it, the old order of sin and death has been overcome by the mighty resurrection of God’s Son. In this new order, these women are in the wrong place, for the wrong purpose, with the wrong things in their hands. They are standing in the confined space of the tomb, the ultimate symbol of the old order, and somehow they have to be pushed out of it into the new. Once, at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had come to Galilee with the good news of God, and called his disciples. Now he is apparently going there again, and these women are to ensure the disciples get there, too. They are being re-called. It is time to leave the tomb behind.
Many things in human life remain unfinished, from symphonies, to books, to relationships. Mark is very much the Gospel for people living with unfinished business. Once the emptiness of the tomb was established, there were indeed resurrection appearances, as we hear in other parts of the New Testament, especially from Peter and Paul. But Mark’s story ends without any tangible evidence for the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection. Perhaps Mark knew that seeing is not always believing: faith is an integral part of the resurrection equation.
It is quite sobering to reflect that everything that has happened subsequently in terms of the spread of the Jesus story was left in the hands of a small group of terrified women and those male disciples who had not even been brave or devoted enough to make it as far as the tomb early on that first day of the week. God’s good news did not depend on the disciples’ readiness, and, mercifully, it doesn’t depend on ours either. Instead, God’s potential for the new life which Easter signifies catches us up in the story wherever we are – and in spite of our doubts and fears.
God’s mighty resurrection breaks into a world of loose ends, unfinished business and frightened people. Mark is the Gospel for people who recognise themselves in that situation. In RTM, albeit on a rather more prosaic level, you might say we are missing a few bodies and experiencing some empty spaces! We may have some apprehension about what happens next. But we, too, like Christians throughout history, are called to leave the confines of the tomb, from whatever holds us back, and follow where the risen Jesus leads – wherever Galilee may be found in our own experience. When it comes to Mark’s Gospel, there is no neat ending which answers all our questions and thereby solves the mystery. It seems the only choice is to live with uncertainty. Although it’s hard to get your head round, faith resides in the absent. But I take great encouragement from Mark’s telling of the story. It gives a great deal of scope for living with the mystery and discovering what the empty tomb might mean in our experience, here and now.
I couldn’t possibly finish without a quote from the Bard, as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death. In Hamlet, Ophelia says, ‘Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be’. Easter insists the possibilities are endless. Thanks be to God.