“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”
The end of the Gospel of Mark has been bothering people for a long time. It bothered someone so much in the late second century that they wrote a longer ending that included appearances of the risen Christ, a commissioning of the disciples, and an account of the Ascension.
It bothered someone else so much that, perhaps in the fourth century, they wrote another alternative ending, just one sentence long, correcting the women’s silence – they pass on the message as commanded, and salvation is preached from east to west.
It bothered Biblical scholars of the 19th and 20th century so much that they developed hypotheses about a lost ending. They could see that the added endings weren’t original, but surely Mark hadn’t meant to end it here! Perhaps the final section of Mark’s original document was torn off and lost?
The best modern scholarship, though, says, This is how Mark ends his Gospel. Right here. With fear and flight and silence. And that leaves us to struggle to make sense of it. Why end like this??…
The Bible contains four Gospels, the books that tell of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark is my favorite of the four. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, and the oldest. For a long time it wasn’t given a lot of scholarly attention – it was seen as a cruder form of the more literary and developed Gospels, Matthew and Luke.
But Mark is actually a master storyteller. There are all kinds of complex and subtle literary devices embedded in Mark’s text, in the way he shapes the story. I have come to trust Mark’s craft, Mark’s voice. When he gives me this ending – what some scholars call the “abrupt” ending – I trust that he has a purpose, a point.
It’s not that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection appearances, all the stories of the risen Jesus meeting with his friends that are told in the other three Gospels. Mark hints at those stories, elsewhere in the book. But he chooses not to tell them here. He chooses to end – abruptly – and I think he does it with his readers in mind. In this he is a strikingly modern writer, thinking of how his text will work on the minds and hearts of his future readers.
Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, doesn’t know that there will be other Gospels. For all he knows, he will be the only one to ever set down these events for all to read. He’s keenly conscious of crafting a text that will change minds and, even more importantly, change hearts. He wants to draw people into this story that he witnessed, the story that changed his whole life. And with all of this in mind, he chooses to end his Gospel with the women running away, terrified into speechlessness.
I think this abrupt ending does three things. And I think Mark, the canny storyteller, intends all of them.
First, this ending sends us back to the beginning. Think of books and movies with a surprise twist towards the end, a reveal that sends you back, wanting to watch the whole thing or read the whole thing again. Citizen Kane. The Crying Game. The Sixth Sense. Arrival. You leave the theater saying to your friends, “Whoa! So when this happened… ! And when she said that … ! Right. I need to watch that again!” You rethink everything that happened before the twist, the revelation – because you see it in a new light now.
That’s what Mark is doing. The angel at the empty tomb tells the women, Jesus will meet you again in Galilee; go find him there! Funny – that sounds a lot like the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Chapter one, verse 14: “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God.” That that’s not a coincidence. It’s the kind of thing Mark does – subtle parallels and connections within the text that send the careful reader bouncing around, here and there, reading across and between instead of straight through.
At Mark chapter 16, verse 8, Mark intends to send his reader back to Mark chapter 1, verse 1. Because, like the disciples, we didn’t understand it all the first time through. We will read it differently the second time, now that we know how it ends – and who the main character really is.
The second thing Mark intends, by ending his Gospel this way, is to affirm that this is a story about God’s power, not human goodness. He does that in two ways. First, there are a couple of places in this text where Mark uses what scholars call “the divine passive.”A passive-voice verb, an act without a doer, meant to point to God as the unnamed actor. The stone had been rolled away. By whom? Jesus has been raised. By whom? By the power of God.
The second way Mark points us to God’s power is a little harder to take, because we want these women to be heroes. These women – Mark first introduced them just a couple of paragraphs earlier, in 15:40. Jesus is already dead, and Mark finally gets around to saying, By the way…. a whole group of women were also there, watching from a distance. Women who had travelled with Jesus, and cared for him, and supported him, and listened to his preaching… In fact, disciples – though Mark never calls them by that name.
The male disciples all fled the scene back in chapter 14, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden. Peter followed him a little farther, but then is caught in fear and denial, and vanishes from the story. We love these women the moment we meet them – such courage, such devotion! Staying near their beloved teacher in his dying hours. Watching where his body is laid. Setting out, as soon as the sabbath law permitted, to tend to his body. Determined to do what is needful, to wash and anoint, even though it’s been nearly two days in a warm climate. Even though they have no idea how they’ll even get to him, sealed behind that great stone.
We honor their devotion. We want them to win. To finally get the credit they deserve by being the first to spread the good news of the risen Christ.
And, in fact, they were. The other Gospels ALL testify that the women who followed Jesus were the first to discover the empty tomb and to receive and share the Resurrection message. Mark knows this too! He knows the women did tell what they had seen and heard. Otherwise there would be no Gospel – and no church! He chooses to end the story – to freeze the story – in the moment when they are so full of fear and awe and confusion that their lips are sealed.
Mark wants no human heroes in his Gospel. The Resurrection happens, the Word is spread, the Good News takes root and grows, not because of human obedience or courage or strength – but in spite of human weakness. The women are courageous, yes, up to a point – but then they, like their male counterparts, take flight in fear. Everyone fails, in this story. Everyone except God. Humbling – but also encouraging, for generations of Christians all too familiar with our own failings. Our weakness does not diminish or limit God’s strength.
The third thing Mark does, by ending his Gospel in this way, is resist closure. I don’t think Mark cares much for happy endings. Because a happy ending lets you put the book down. Smile, sigh, tuck it back onto the shelf.
In the other Gospels, Jesus meets the disciples again, they are forgiven, relieved of their grief and guilt. He gives them their marching orders and then vanishes into the sky. There’s room for a sequel, sure, but the loose ends are all tied up. The story has an ending.
Mark’s Gospel… doesn’t. Mark holds to the school of thought that says that a good story leaves you asking, “And *then* what happened?” He intentionally leaves his reader with a head full of questions. But did the women ever tell? Did the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee? Did they speak? Did they go? What happened?” And Mark’s answer is: That’s their story. What about yours? Will you speak? Will you go? …
That’s why this is my favorite Easter Gospel. Because it’s not just Jesus’ story, or the first disciples’ story. It’s our story. It is unfinished, it is incomplete – because the story keeps going.
Mark begins his Gospel with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” When you first read it, you think Chapter 1 is the beginning. Looking back from chapter 16, though, perhaps the whole book … is the beginning. The whole book, all sixteen chapters… just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Everything that’s happened since, in thirty or forty years for Mark, in nearly two thousand for us, that’s the continuation. The middle. The unfolding of that good news in history. Sometimes up and sometimes down. Sometimes working powerfully for peace and justice, sometimes in the hands of those who use it to bind and to hurt.Sometimes in the mouths of the powerful, sometimes on the lips and in the hearts of those on the margins. Sometimes stirring up revolutions. Sometimes simply helping people keep on keeping on, day by day, year by year.
The Good News keeps unfolding – in spite of human weakness. The power of God, the power of the living Christ, is not contained by the walls of the tomb or the pages of the book.
The end of Mark’s gospel gapes open like the empty tomb. Any happy ending, any closure pushed aside, like that heavy stone.We’re left to peer into the dimness and wonder – and we’re left with the angel’s promise, to the women, to the world, that beyond the story, beyond the text, beyond human failure, beyond the tendency of all Jesus’ followers to miss the point, then as now, beyond the numbing familiarity of the narrative, beyond busyness and weariness and fear and everything that keeps the good news from taking root in our hearts and lives, beyond all of that, Jesus waits to meet us, again, and again, and again.