Surprise endings and beginnings

Mark 16: 1-8

A sermon offered by The Reverend Ann Edwards

Easter Sunday 2021

Today’s Gospel reading is, according to the earliest ancient authorities, the original end of The Gospel of Mark, a text that is now believed to be the earliest Gospel account.[1]

And in those early times, The Gospel of Mark would have been written to be read aloud to a group. The Gospel was therefore heard communally, rather than read privately, likely in one sitting. We can imagine it to be a bit like a dramatic reading, and today’s text is the surprise ending.

And for many, this would have been the first encounter of the gospel message in its fullness. Some listeners may have heard bits and pieces, parts of the story, or versions handed mouth to mouth. But when encountering the Gospel of Mark for the first time, people sat and heard the story of Jesus from beginning to end for the first time.

The risk of reading Mark while recalling the accounts in Matthew, Luke and John, or with the information we glean from texts like today’s reading from Acts, is that we miss an invitation given by the writer. Unlike the later Gospel texts, Mark leaves no neat conclusion – this story is deliberately completed unfinished. Three dedicated women saw Christ crucified and witnessed Christ’s resurrection, and fled in shocked silence. The hearer is left wondering – how then was the story written? What happened next? This ending is a masterpiece of writing when you see how the moment is set up.

The Gospel of Mark has a thread of liminal spaces and times, and the conclusion read today draws these hints together with power. Eight short verses carry so much complexity.

First, in describing the time for this event, to the original listeners, the second verse reads – the women arrive very early (at a time before the sun rises) when the sun had risen. The original hearers did not wear watches, and the idea of time as we know it, carefully measured with numerical accuracy didn’t exist for the everyday person. And so, descriptions of time carried meaning. And this time was a time between night and day. A time that represented to those ancient people the transition point between the chaos, danger and death of night and the hope of sunlight that banishes evil. The hearers of this message would have recognised the ambiguity of that time.

Similarly, the place for this event was deeply surprising for those times. Tombs and burial sites were taboo and dangerous places; they were the borderlands between the living and dead. To enter a tomb was to become ritually unclean, and to choose to go there without clear obligation was to invite ostracisation.

Finally, the purpose of the journey is equally enigmatic. The women carefully prepare to anoint a body that is already two days in the grave. They are far too late to anoint a body from either a sanitary or religious point of view. And yet they rise early, carefully gather the spices required, and make their way. The hearers of this text must have wondered – “what were they thinking?” And it is only as the women approach their destination that they ask who will roll the enormous stone from the entrance. And yet they continue, knowing they have no way of entering the tomb when they arrive.

The women travel at the cusp of the times between darkness and light, they arrive at the taboo borderlands of the living and dead, purposefully preparing for the purposeless, knowing that an enormous barrier will be there to block their way.

For Mark’s audience, women intending to enter into this space at this time for no practical purpose would have been shocking. Their motives are not explained – were they driven by devotion or grief?

Or are they, like Jesus, throwing out the rule book and going where love leads, clean or unclean, because nothing from the outside can defile. Following love, they find the tomb open. They were willing to enter the taboo, face the unclean, and to touch the transition point between life and death. Something about Jesus has changed them. In love and faith, they enter that place in an astonishing way, finding the expected barrier is simply gone and the entrance is wide open to them.

They enter in that peculiar and particular time before the sun rises, when the sun rises. And in this time of danger that is brightening into hope and renewal, the women step into the tomb, a place where death should already have won. And they find it empty.

It is a challenging scene, and nothing is simple. The potential is wide open. As wide open as the entry to the tomb.

The women stare into death and life in fullness, refusing to turn away from the questions this ambiguous time and place raise. And the tomb does not hold what they expect.

In this story, the young man in white that they meet is the one thing that is not ambiguous. He is dressed in a white robe, at right side of the tomb, in the traditional place of one who can be trusted and respected. To Mark’s original audience, there is no question that this is God’s messenger, a good and powerful angel. In this in-between land at the in-between time, a land of taboo and fear at a time of transformation, there can be no question that the women are experiencing something good, and holy. This message is decisive.

“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 the women flee from that space, silenced by terror and amazement.

We are invited by Mark to join Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, holding this extraordinary news, and to not know what to do with it. To equally sit in silence with terror and confusion and awe, knowing that silence speaks volumes. Knowing that these conflicting emotions push us forward to that place where we will meet Christ, in an encounter that will embolden us to speak.

Mark leaves the hearer with a range of possible responses – surprise, intrigue, fear, terror, hope. These responses may change in the same hearer at different times in their life journeys. This is a masterful piece of writing, that shares the Gospel that transcends every human attempt at limitation.

The end of the story is up to these women. The end of this story is up to us. The end of the story rests in the invitation of the limitless God. The end of the story is just the beginning.

In the name of crucified and risen Christ.

Joynes, Christine E. (2011). The Sound of Silence: Interpreting Mark 16:1–8 through the Centuries. Interpretation, 65(1), 18-29.

Whitenton, Michael R. (2016). Feeling the Silence: A Moment-by-Moment Account of Emotions at the End of Mark (16:1-8). The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 78(2), 272-289.

Williams, Guy J. (2013). Narrative Space, Angelic Revelation, and the End of Mark’s Gospel. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 35(3), 263-284.

[1] The Gospel of Mark is often read through the lens of the other gospels. This is a very good and helpful thing to do. And it is also good and helpful to read Mark as the author intended – as a stand-alone text that presents the Gospel message. 

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