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.” (Mark 16:1-7 – NRSV)
Similar accounts of the empty tomb are found in Matthew 28:1–10; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10.
Mark’s Gospel leaves us with a puzzle. The original text finishes after 16:8. (It is a pity that the text that is given us to proclaim here concludes at v.7, omitting that final verse: “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.” This surely is one of the most compelling testimonies to the truth of the empty tomb!) The final verses of the Gospel as we have it – 16:9-20 – have been added by someone else. Most scholars today believe that “Mark deliberately broke off his narrative at 16:8”. (John Donahue SJ and Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Mark, Liturgical
Press 2002, 460.)
Mark is unique in using a very strong word to describe the surprise of the women, here translated as “they were alarmed”. The verb ekthambeo (ἐκθαμβέω) and it combines notions of both fear and wonder, astonishment and distress. Mark has already used this word to describe Jesus’ deep distress in Gethsemane (14:33). Mark’s text suggests to us that the women experience themselves as being in the presence of God. “The young man dressed in a white robe” adds to this sense of the divine presence (see Revelations 7:9 and 13).
The NRSV translates the Greek literally here when it says “He has been raised” (ἠγέρθη). Some translations – eg NIV – have “He is risen”. The literal translation makes it clear that Jesus did not raise himself. The other translation is not quite so clear on that.
“The young man” gives the foundational statement of faith of the first disciples of Jesus: “He has been raised; he is not here” (16:6). The corpse that the women came to anoint is no longer there. The tomb is empty! And the tomb is empty, not because the women have turned up att he wrong place or because the disciples have stolen the body or perhaps because Jesus did not really get crucified. The tomb is empty because Jesus has been raised from the dead (see for example Matthew 27:62-66; 28:11-15; Marl 15:44-45.)
The disciples cannot explain it, but they certainly do not try to explain it away or reduce it to some acceptable interpretation such as Jesus lives on in the community (which he does) or that it is our memory of him that lives on (which is also true). It is as if they are saying – a bit like the man born blind and healed by Jesus (see John 9:27) – “We know he has risen, he who was once dead is now alive; we are certain of this! How to explain it? It is not possible for us to say.”
St Paul represents the faith of the first disciples when he writes: “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-6)
“The third day” echoes the Prophet Hosea: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” (6:2)
The three women go to the tomb after the Sabbath. It is not hard to imagine what their thoughts and feelings are. The one they had grown to love, from whom they expected something special, has come to a cruel end. They expect to find a corpse. They will perform the appropriate rituals. They will return to their homes and old ways of life. End of story!
Of course, if that was the end of the story, they would certainly have remembered Jesus for the rest of their lives. He would have ‘lived on’, as it were, in their memories and in the memories of the other disciples.
But clearly this is about much more than a memory. This is about a presence – the living presence of a man who has been crucified. Nothing will ever be the same again – for them and the rest of the world!
This belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the basis, the core and the heart of everything they do and say from now on. It demands that they say with absolute confidence that he is the Messiah, the One for whom the Jews have waited. Because of the resurrection, the empty tomb and the cross become forevermore symbols of freedom and hope.