One of the few accounts common to all four gospels are the resurrection narratives. While each one may differ in details, they all point to the central truth: Jesus was raised from the dead. Mark’s gospel, however, is probably the oddest of all the accounts. While Mark gospel is known for his brevity – no birth narratives, no flowing prologue – the conclusion of his gospel and his resurrection account is still rather startling with its exceedingly abrupt ending
In Mark’s account, following the crucifixion, Jesus was taken down from the cross and laid in a nearby tomb. Then a huge stone was rolled in front of the opening to seal the tomb, at least until the sabbath was passed, and his body could be properly prepared for burial. Three women; Salome, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples, came to the tomb at the first moment they could, intending to complete the burial ritual and to grieve and honor their friend and teacher. They’d certainly been worried about moving the stone, but when they arrived, they found to their great surprise it had already been moved aside. Immediately, they enter into the tomb to find out what has been going on. And – they find far more than they bargained for! Instead of the body of their beloved friend, they find a young man in white who informs them that he has been raised. In fact, the man says, he’s gone ahead to Galilee. He tells them not to be afraid and to go tell the disciples. Yet, these women; devoted, persistent and brave disciples are frozen in fear and awe. End of story. End of gospel.
Now if you think this is a rather strange and unsatisfying ending, you are not alone. It is. Yet, the earliest and best of the original copies of Mark’s gospel ends with these words. That’s it. He’s done. Time to move on to the Gospel of Luke.
However, if you have your Bible open in front of you, you might be thinking, “wait! There’s more!” and you would be right. There are actually two additional endings to Mark, usually enclosed in brackets. These are often found in later manuscripts. That’s because the scribes and monks who were commissioned with copying the scriptures didn’t like the way Mark ended the gospel either. So, they tried to fix it by adding onto the end of the chapter.
The endings are helpful, in that they bring resolution to the story by tying up the loose ends. But the language and vocabulary in the short ending isn’t consistent with Mark’s style of writing. Where else in Mark have we heard phrases resembling “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of salvation”. Then there’s the long ending, which seems simply to be a compilation of quotes from the other gospels.
So why did Mark leave his reading hanging? Let’s consider for a moment that Mark wasn’t just having writer’s block. He wasn’t that he impatiently sent his manuscript off half-finished because of more pressing matters. Let’s suppose instead that Mark knew exactly what he was doing. That he crafted an incomplete ending by design. That he left the story hanging on this moment of failure and disappointment for a reason.
Why would he do that?
Maybe because he knew that no story about death and resurrection could possibly have a neat and tidy ending. It could be because he knew that readers of his Gospel, if they were paying attention, ought to be more than a little uncomfortable at the idea of this convicted criminal coming back to life. But maybe, just maybe, it’s because he believed that this story wasn’t over yet, and thus, he wrote an open ending to his gospel in order that he might invite us to jump in and take up our part in continuing it.
That’s perhaps because the story of what God is doing in and through Jesus wasn’t over at the empty tomb. Maybe Mark wants us to know that It’s only just getting started. Resurrection isn’t the conclusion, it’s an invitation, and only the beginning of God’s work of salvation. And while Jesus’ triumph over death, sin, and hate is important, it isn’t what the whole of Mark’s Gospel is about. Rather, Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redemption of the world.
Notice that Jesus does not hang around the tomb. He does not interact with any of the women who came that morning, unlike we find in the other gospels. No, Jesus is risen and he has gone ahead of them to Galilee. He has gone back to work, and the angels commission the women to gather the disciples and join him. He is back doing the work of the resurrection, and we too are invited to join him.
Mark gives us a clue to that in the very first verse, in an opening sentence that is almost as abrupt and awkward as the closing one. Mark, you’ll remember, doesn’t give us the long genealogy of Matthew; the tender story of shepherds, angels, and a mother and her newborn together in a stable as in Luke; or the theologically soaring and totally wonderful hymn to the Word made flesh of John. Rather, Mark says simply, even pointedly, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Goodness gracious, but that doesn’t even sound like an introduction (and, indeed, some have wondered if it was Mark’s title rather than opening line). But the key point here is that Marks says straight off that all of his writing is only the beginning of the good news of what God has done and is still doing for the world through Jesus the Christ.
It’s only the beginning; this story isn’t over. It’s only the beginning, and we have a part to play. It’s only the beginning, and if you wonder why there is still so much distress and pain in the world, it’s because God’s not done yet. It’s only the beginning, and Mark is inviting us to get out of our seats and into the game, sharing the good news of Jesus’ complete identification with those who suffering and his triumph over injustice and death with everyone we meet. It’s only the beginning, and we’re empowered and equipped to work for the good in all situations because we trust God’s promises that all will in time come to a good end even when we can’t see evidence of that. It’s only the beginning…. the beginning of the story, and the rest – and perhaps even the best – of this story is unfolding before our eyes and, indeed, through our lives.
The story isn’t over. In fact, resurrection life is breaking out all over the place.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
May God give us Easter eyes to see it. Amen.