Monday, April 6, 2009

"and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

The end of Mark's Gospel is disturbing. At least, what is probably the end of Mark's Gospel is disturbing. If you take a look at the end of Mark, you'll notice that many modern translations print v. 9-20 of chapter sixteen with parentheses, brackets, a footnote, or some other notation to point out that these verses were probably not originally part of the Gospel of Mark. It is thought that some later scribes who were copying Mark's Gospel probably added this verse to give the story a more suitable ending.

Why did these scribes feel they needed to add something to Mark's story about Jesus?

Well, if you read Mark with 16:8 as the ending, the reason becomes apparent. In Mark, similar to the other gospels, the women come to Jesus' tomb only to find that Jesus' body is not there. Instead, there is a man robed in white who tells them not to be afraid but to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive and will meet them in Galilee just as he promised. But this is where things get uncomfortable. If Mark ends at 16:8, then there is no record of this promise being fulfilled. Mark doesn't tell us that Jesus ever met with the disciples or that they ever saw him raised to life. In fact, Mark says that the women fled from the tomb for "trembling and astonishment were holding them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid!"

That can't possibly be the end of the story! It is so unsatisfying. There is no closure. Worse than that, it seems that Jesus, who liberated so many from disease and sickness and was himself apparently liberated from his captivity to death, is unable to liberate three of his own followers from their fear. For Mark portrays their fear as a kind of slavery when he says not simply that they were filled with fear but that "trembling and astonishment were holding them". The story ends with these women held captive and unable to speak. With such an ending, we can begin to see why a scribe may have wanted to add his own more positive and triumphant conclusion.

But maybe that is Mark's point. Maybe in writing such an odd ending, he is inviting us to write our own. Or more precisely, he is inviting us to step into the story and make it our own since the story of Jesus' resurrection does not end with the empty tomb. It is a story continued by the Church. Perhaps Mark anticipates our question of "Wait! How does the story end?" and his response is "You already know and are continually finding out for yourselves because you are the recipients and messengers of this resurrection life."

Or to put it another way, the very existence of Mark's Gospel is testament to the fact that these three women were not held captive by their trembling and astonishment forever. After all, if they had been and they had kept the empty tomb a secret then, at least by Mark's telling of the story, the disciples would have never known about the resurrection. By Mark's account, the resurrection becoming known was entirely dependent upon Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome. Mark could not have written this final chapter and would not have written the rest of his story if Salome, Mary, and Mary were not eventually freed of their fear and able to speak about what they had seen.

Mark is inviting us to see that Jesus continues his mighty acts of liberation even as Mark's own telling of those acts has to come an end.

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