“…for they were afraid.” What? Wasn’t there enough room on the corner of papyrus to at least finish the verse? Did the reed run out of ink? Did Mark’s writing desk collapse underneath him? You can’t end the most authentic of all the Easter stories- source material for Matthew, Luke, and John- with shielded bodies, tied tongues and dilated pupils.
The ancient scribes didn’t think so either. That’s why if you turn in your Bibles to chapter 16, you’ll see verse 8 ends abruptly with terror. Period. Paragraph break. Then a few lines of blank page and the later additions, “THE SHORTER ENDING OF MARK,” and “THE LONGER ENDING OF MARK.” According to the editorial board of the Cannon, a proper resolution to the drama of salvation history must include a glorious appearance of the risen Savior, breakfast by the beach with the old gang, and the disciples’ commissioning to the ends of the earth. But that’s not what the original manuscript says.
Nothing is more humiliating for a Jew than death without burial. Because work on the Sabbath was prohibited, the women had to wait all night by the door. Costly spices underarm, by foot the next morning, they went to anoint the body and ritualize their grief, to mourn that God was dead. After hustling past the other headstones, they arrived at a scene that was even more disturbing than their loss: the boulder had been shoved aside, a boy in his bathrobe was mouthing off fantasies, and their friend was gone. Their reality testing blurred by tears, it’s too much to take in. Overwhelmed, the women seize with fear.
Since many say quivering fear is the opposite of muscular faith, Christianity has gravitated towards the other Gospels on the third day. But Mark’s account- void of the translated triumphalism found elsewhere- still has holy insight worthy of our attention. Assuming he had no plans for multiple postscripts, why would Mark end his narrative this way?
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.
Agnes did not want her letters published. After God called her to Calcutta, she spent her days searching the streets and slums, cradling the unwanted infants crying curbside, starting orphanages for run-away children, kneeling beside the infirmed to offer medicine, taking up residence in the leper colony to show solidarity, extending the hand of compassionate touch at the HIV clinic, and sitting down bedside at the hospice for the labored goodbye. Publicly donning a blue and white sari to serve in India and speak internationally, her habit covered a turmoil that spanned 66 years. In private, Mother Teresa corresponded with superiors and confessors. In one exchange, she wrote, “… even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness… I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart—& make me suffer untold agony.” To another priest she implored, “Please pray specially for me… [it is as] if everything was dead.” And in 1962, “If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be [the Saint] of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven…” When she died in 1997, Catholicism overruled her wishes and released her autobiography posthumously. Offering solace to believers and doubters alike, her words also revealed that during her decades-long crisis of faith, she nonetheless rose every morning at 4:30 to start all over again.
For those struggling, the church calendar coinciding with the Spring Equinox can feel like a premature lurching towards the light, a forced celebration when the world is still gathered at the cross. While others unapologetically lead with the brilliance of the resurrection, Mark hangs back at the empty tomb for those in the shadows.
When Magdalene, Mary, and Salome became paralyzed, the writer doesn’t rush them off the page, judge their reactions, or force them into choir robes to sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Instead, Mark allows their emotions to be expressed without interruption; he allows Lent to go on for longer than forty days; he allows the first Easter not to feel like Easter at all.
Mark ends his narrative a few verses short because he refuses to participate in a spiritual life that doesn’t accommodate darkness. Or, make room for what we’re all experiencing in the midst of this pandemic: the despair of seeing our friends laid off and businesses we frequent shutter; the forced and sudden abandonment of life as we used to know it; the exhaustion of suppressing our most basic relational instincts; the excruciating absence of Jesus when you need him the most.
While Good Friday endures, Sunday is coming. With the adolescent angel’s invitation to go and tell hovering in the air, Mark leaves his narrative unresolved. Knowing the Gospel isn’t practiced in print, he trusts the hearer to pen his last sentence with our lived response. He was right, the women eventually went and witnessed, word escaped the cemetery. Soon, we will be on our way to Galilee too.