Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
For the Gospel reading today, any one of the following may be chosen: Mark 16:1-8; John 20:1-9; Luke 24:13-35. I have chosen 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 (Mark 16:1-8 – NRSV).
The Gospel to be read omits the last sentence of this passage – “So they went out and fled from the tomb etc.”. This omission is unfortunate. If you wanted to write a convincing account of a “resurrection-that-did-not-happen” you would not write this last sentence!
There are two factors at play here. The first is Mark’s account of what happened and the second is the early Christian community’s oral tradition: “One must distinguish between the Markan empty tomb account (probably a Markan composition) and the empty tomb tradition (a necessary presupposition for the early Christian proclamation about Jesus’ resurrection)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 459). The empty tomb, on its own, of course does not prove that Jesus rose from the dead. His body could have been stolen, for example.
“The text of Mark’s Gospel seems to break off somewhat awkwardly at 16:8 (‘For they were afraid’). The ‘endings’ found in some manuscripts (see the next unit) are generally regarded as non-Markan additions to the main text. The sudden ending at 16:8 has been explained in various ways. It is possible (but not very likely) that the evangelist died or was otherwise prevented from finishing his work. A better possibility is that the last page (or pages) of Mark’s Gospel was lost. This is suggested by the anticipation of the appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples in Galilee that is mentioned in 14:28 and 16:7. A third possibility (and the one that most scholars embrace today) is that Mark deliberately broke off his narrative at 16:8 (‘For they were afraid’).
“Proponents of the third explanation usually appeal to Mark’s skill as a writer (though some have called him ‘clumsy’) and especially to his literary genius in leaving the story of Jesus open-ended and demanding a decision from the reader. Since Mark wrote mainly (if not exclusively) for fellow Christians he could expect all his readers to know the early Christian proclamation about the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, in each of the Passion predictions (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34) there has been a reference to the resurrection of Jesus. To those who know about and believe in Jesus’ resurrection Mark is effectively saying: Go back and read again the story of Jesus the wonderful teacher and healer who is the suffering but now vindicated Messiah and Son of God.
“If Mark 16:8 was the original ending of the gospel, what does this mean for our understanding of the women disciples? In particular, what do we make out of Mark’s very emphatic comment in 16:8: ‘they said nothing to anyone’? In this Markan context the women fail to carry out the commission given to them by the ‘young man’ to go and tell Jesus’ disciples about the appearances of the risen Jesus that they were to experience in Galilee (16:7). In a sense their failure matches the failure of the male disciples so richly documented in chs. 14 and 15. If this is so, then Mark is saying to his readers that the character most worthy of their imitation is Jesus, and that even his earliest male and female followers, whatever their merits may have been, are not as worthy of their imitation as Jesus is.
“The gospel then ends as it began, with a message from God (1:3; 16:7) pointing to a meeting with Jesus the Messiah and Son of God. As the good news of Jesus was rooted in Isaiah (see Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:3), the final command of the ‘young man’ also echoes Isaiah, with its rhythm of forgiveness and restoration after failure: ‘I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn darkness before them into light’ (Isa 42:16; see Sharyn Echols Dowd, Reading Mark, 167–69). The blindness that characterized the disciples throughout (see 8:18) will be lifted, to be replaced by seeing the risen Jesus in Galilee” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 460-461).
Listen to the hopelessness in those opening lines of today’s Gospel – 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?’” It is not difficult to imagine the women walking with their heads down. The harsh truth of what they had personally witnessed was weighing heavily on them. From the arrest of Jesus, through his “trial”, torture and eventual brutal crucifixion, they had every last ounce of hope wrung out of them. That Friday was not a beginning but an unimaginably horrid ending.
Listen then to the hope – yes, amidst terror and confusion – in the closing lines of today’s Gospel: “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”. Resignation has been replaced by energy!
We learn a valuable lesson from the experience of the women: Hope can live with terror and fear, incomprehension and confusion. Hope does not depend on us having the strategies and skills to sort things out, as if we could reduce life to problems and solutions. Hope comes from our encounter with the mystery at the heart of life. Our faith tells us that the mystery at the heart of life is God, revealed to us in the Risen Lord.
What is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate mystery of existence – “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages” (Colossians 1:26). And so St Paul prays for the community in Colossae: “I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself” (Colossians 2:2).
There is a very practical implication in this truth of our faith. In this time of great change and need for renewal and reform in the Church and society, we should remember that our hope is always in the Lord, not in the renewal and reform. Does this absolve us from working for deeper and more effective ways of witnessing to the Gospel as Church? Absolutely not! But it does give us a compass. Sometimes frustration and anger can overtake us because we place our hope in our version of what is needed. That is a formula for despair. A hope grounded in Jesus Christ can survive a lot of frustration, fear, incomprehension and human failure. A hope grounded in anything else simply will not survive the harsh reality of human ignorance, dishonesty, incompetence, narcissism, bloody mindedness and sheer weakness – all of which you will find at play in any human organization, including the Catholic Church.