An Inauspicious Ending?

Easter Reflection by Joseph Holub

Mark 16:1-8    When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘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.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

I dare say you may have never heard Mark’s version of the resurrection read on Easter Day. You have likely heard John’s version with Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus near the tomb that will be read in most churches today; or perhaps Matthew’s version of the two Mary’s bumping into Jesus while running to tell the disciples the tomb was empty; or Luke’s version  where two disciples encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  Mark concludes his gospel: “…so they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and said nothing to anyone.”  It seems like an inauspicious and abrupt ending.  Actually, your Bible has 12 more verses after these that are footnoted, but they were added much later on by a later editor who was not comfortable with Mark’s original ending.  No, Mark’s original version ended in this way.  That’s the way Mark intended it!

But of the four gospels, I most identify with Mark’s ending.  I am of the opinion that the stories of the resurrection are best understood in a more-than-literal way – a metaphorical way.  The gospel stories weren’t written down in the form we have them until decades after Jesus, some 30-40 years after Jesus.  For decades they existed only in the oral story-telling tradition of the early Jesus communities, and the stories were passed down from one generation to the next.  What we have is the end result of decades of oral story-telling.  The resurrection stories are extraordinarily diverse, which strongly suggests each story was crafted by the Jesus community from which it came and shaped by the meaning they experienced in Jesus.  The stories are not literal historical accounts, but testimonies to the spiritual and theological meaning of Jesus for their lives.  I think the most relevant question to ask is not, “Is this how things actually happened?”  I think a better question is, “What do the stories mean in telling them the way they did?”

So, as inauspicious as it appears and abrupt as it certainly is, let’s take Mark’s ending for what it is.  Let’s look at it with wide-eyed expectation to uncover the message Mark is proclaiming, not only for his faith community in the 8th decade of the first century, but for us in the second decade of the 21st century.

One thing Mark has in common with the other gospels is the role of women in the resurrection.  In many of the gospel stories, women were behind the scenes – always there, always faithful – but always behind the scenes.   Mark draws them out of anonymity and identifies three women by name who ventured to the tomb, and I might add at great risk. (Mary Magdalene; Mary, Mother of James; and Salome)

Jesus was crucified as an enemy of the state, and it was a dangerous thing to be associated with him, as the imperial powers were attempting to stamp out the movement that had formed around him.  For a moment, these women stepped away from their fear to risk visiting the grave of Jesus. Their risk is made even more dramatic by the realization that, according to Mark,  the men were nowhere to be found – laying low – hiding out – paralyzed by their fear.

When I think of these brave women who ventured to the tomb, I think of other women who have stepped away from letting fear rule and placed themselves at great risk. I think of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Latin America who, in country after country, were the ones who – when things were at their worst, when the violence of military-rule was most grotesque – came out time and time again and stood alone before the military and the world, testifying for their loved ones, and for the truth.

This replayed in many places: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Argentina, as well as Northern Ireland. When things got  rough, when things were at their worst, when everyone else had fled or was in hiding,  it was women who stood up first, made themselves vulnerable to the risk of torture and death, following the example of Jesus staging non-violent protest in the face of oppression.

The culture of biblical times was strongly male-dominated and patriarchal, but yet even so, Mark and the other gospels elevate these women, mentioning them specifically by name – and in so doing stand these women tall alongside the other male disciples as equal servants and witnesses to the good news of the Kingdom of God.  Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus’ vocation as the bringer of the Kingdom of God; the Kingdom of God that erases conventional political, economic, social and religious boundaries that suppress and oppress entire classes of people; the Kingdom of God that restores dignity to any and all who are oppressed and subjugated; the Kingdom of God that presses for their liberation. Mark and his community experienced something extraordinary in Jesus that elevated women in a culture that subjugated them.

But yet, even so, a tragic legacy of church history ever since has been the attitude to subjugate women and suppress the role of women in the life of the church.  It took until 1970 for our Lutheran denomination to ordain women and many Christian expressions still do not.

The naming and elevation of these women was a courageous thing, especially when surrounded by a legion of cultural, religious and social prejudices to do otherwise.  It certainly raises a pertinent question for  contemporary stewards of the Kingdom of God about those in our time, especially our LGTB colleagues, who are subjugated and suppressed from playing a full role in the life of many denominations and society?  It’s a question that explodes from the heart of Mark’s resurrection story, for Mark wants us to know that resurrection means liberation for the oppressed.  As stewards of the Kingdom of God, we are called to be resurrection advocates of liberation for all the subjugated and oppressed and to empower the last and least of this world to stand tall alongside the powerful and mighty.

But let’s move on to Mark’s abrupt and inauspicious ending.  The young man in the white robe, symbolizing the divine presence, said to the women.  “He is not here, but tell the others he will meet you in Galilee.”    Mark says they then fled in terror and amazement.

Well yes, I’m not surprised!  If I visited my mother’s grave at Scandinavian Cemetery in Rockford, Illinois, and all I found was hole in the ground and some character standing there telling me that I am to meet her in Chicago, I just might flee in terror and amazement myself!  But that’s not the point.  It’s not a question of historicity or historical accuracy, it’s a question of meaning!

Again the question is:  What is the message and the meaning Mark is proclaiming here?  I take Mark’s abrupt ending as an invitation; and on the bottom of that invitation is an R.S.V.P.  It’s an invitation for us to complete the story. Will we?  Mark’s story ends abruptly because he wants us to know the story is not over – the ending is yet to be written; the story continues.  It’s an invitation for us to complete it.  For the early followers of Jesus, resurrection had little to do with afterlife and more to do with living in this life; living a transformed life in the present moment.  It seems as if we have turned that completely around.  We think of it as having mostly to do with afterlife and scarcely anything to do with living in this life.

What’s unique to Mark is that Mark offers no “proofs” of the resurrection for his community of faith; that is no stories of Jesus-sightings or Jesus-encounters.  For Mark, that’s not the point or place to look.  The young man in Mark’s story says, if you want to see the risen Jesus then look in Galilee.   Does he mean we need to log on to and get our flights booked to Galilee as soon as possible?  I don’t think so.  Metaphorically and symbolically Galilee, for me, represents history yet to be written.  Galilee is to move beyond where I am; move beyond my fear; as a follower of Jesus to put his teachings of the Kingdom of God to work in my life.

For me, and it may be different for you, resurrection is not something I believe in first and then go into the world equipped with the message God’s grace, compassion and justice.

It doesn’t work in that sequence for me.  For me, it is taking the grace, compassion and justice of the Kingdom of God out into the world first, and somewhere along the way, surprise, Jesus comes alive – Jesus occupies the present moment in time with me – resurrection becomes real.  That’s the sequence for me.

It’s like love. I cannot really know the truth and fulfillment of love, until I give myself away in love – then it becomes real.

So, where is Galilee?  Jesus did tell us, of course!

Where is Galilee?

Jesus said, “If you do to it the least of these you do it to me.”  Galilee is the suffering of my neighbor.  Until I embrace the pathos of one of the least and last on this planet, I cannot know if Jesus is present and alive in that experience or not; not until I go there first and find out.  So, to go there is an act of trust.

Where is Galilee? 

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” Until I love my enemy in some concrete and tangible way, I cannot know if Jesus is present and alive in that experience or not.  So, to go there is an act of faith.

Where is Galilee? 

Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.”  Until I refrain from striking back in commensurate retaliation and put myself at risk for love’s sake, I cannot know if Jesus is present and alive in that experience or not.  So, to go there is an act of trust.

Where is Galilee?  

Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me; those who would protect their lives will lose them; and those who give their lives away  for my sake will save them.”  Until I take up my cross and follow in such self-emptying way, I cannot know if Jesus is present and alive in that experience or not.  So, to go there is an act of faith.

Is the resurrection real?  All I can say is go to Galilee and find out for yourself.   Mark’s abrupt ending is a call for us to complete the story; a call to move beyond fear and take a risk of love; an invitation into trust.

Tell them to meet me in Galilee …so they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone.”

Is it an inauspicious ending?  That’s up to you and me!


1 thought on “An Inauspicious Ending?

  1. Rebecca

    This is an outstanding and helpful angle of reflection, Joe! Several angles, actually, and new insights for me as I prepare yet another message on this mysterious event(s). Thank you for sharing your thoughts so well.


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