On this Easter morn, as darkness and grief turn to light and joy, the “good news” of Mark’s gospel is, Jesus is not here! None of the women, or men disciples, even get to see him. No one celebrates. And the women who encounter the handsome young angel and hear that Jesus is raised, run away in fear, saying nothing to anyone! Happy Easter! Sometimes a little distance – say 2,000 years – is a good thing!
Ann Tyler, one of my favorite authors, just came out with a new book called, “The Beginner’s Good-Bye.” The protagonist, who becomes a widower at age 35, says this in the book’s opening line, “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” No, the novel is not about the supernatural! If you know Ann Tyler, you know that wouldn’t be her thing. Her novels live in a world of the ordinary. She celebrates amateurs and novices, not experts. She’s sometimes called, the patron saint of misfits, always introducing characters that are either, awkward or shy, eccentric or mismatched. And the lesson of The Beginner’s Good-Bye, according to one reviewer, is that the widower learns how to say farewell, not just to his wife, but to the person he was when he was married to her – in a surprising transformation.
The beloved, eccentric and mismatched disciples, including many women who follow Jesus from Galilee, were shocked by the empty tomb on Easter morn. And, seized by chaos, they have no idea that they will learn how to say farewell, not only to Jesus, but also to the people they were, before they came to know their Lord in the flesh.
The Gospel of Mark’s ending is somewhat of a downer, by our contemporary standards. But that’s alright, because we can fill-in the joy that we need. Belly’s full from Easter Breakfast, “roast-something” in the oven for when we get home, the feast is here, the Lord is risen! No one will roll the stone back and entomb our joy! And here in this place we celebrate that. We are renewed and reformed into God’s people at the font, and we feast at the Lord’s table, simple fare by comparison, this bread and wine, yet extravagant too, knowing it is the gift of Jesus’ body and blood for us, and in consuming it, Jesus turns into energy for us, coursing through our blood stream, making us one with our brother and our savior.
So, is there any way to make sense of Mark’s surprising and fear filled ending, all these crazy centuries later? How do we dust off the ancient pages of scripture and square it with our reality? Certainly not by bopping each other over the head with the literal words of the “good book”, whether in English or Greek, Swedish or Swahili! But only in desiring and devouring the meaning of the words, the proclamation of the good news for our time, so that they may live in us, a pumping life-blood message which takes flesh in its real-time witnesses, you and I, then it can be resurrected once again, and becomes a story that changes the world!
This book of Mark confounded many a reader, from early on. So much so, that the copyists and keepers of the written manuscripts, began to add on more palatable endings of their own. Not surprisingly – because they didn’t understand the joy already embedded in it – they wrote happier, more traditional endings, mostly copying Matthew and Luke. And this time, made sure Jesus appeared to the disciples, and then ascended. Your bible at home probably has these alternate endings in them, without any note of explanation.
But the original ending is just how I told it to you today. That after the women hear the announcement, Jesus has been raised, and is going ahead of you to Galilee, …just as he told you, they went out and fled in fear and amazement, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
If that doesn’t affect you in some way, confound you, give you pause about the faith and religion you have been baptized into, the realm and kingdom of God that you represent every time you walk out into the world, then, we have a problem, Houston! Mark wants us to feel that something is not quite right! That the women say nothing to anyone should worry us. How will the message get through? There’s no business or government agency, no army or non-profit that will exist for very long if the vital messages of the organization aren’t communicated well!
Mark’s ending is not a story to be put on the shelf and forget, but it affects us, changes and turns us, and calls us to react. Mark’s ending challenges us, to be the ones to go and tell someone. “Go spread the news,” our Hymn of the Day urges, “he’s not in the grave. He has arisen this world to save.”
And so the ending, creates the possibility for a new beginning. In fact, it’s the only way out of the tomb! Jesus has been pointing to it in this story all along, but standing in the shoes of the disciples, we seem to have ignored it, just as they disbelieved it! Jesus told them plainly, he must suffer and die, and on the third day be raised. Jesus told them he would go ahead of them, back to Galilee, where they would find him again. Mark’s ending is not a failure, or somehow, badly written. Mark’s ending is a challenge to be inspired, eternally pointing us back to the beginning to re-read the story for all the parts we first missed. What is the good news, again? Who is this Jesus, Son of God? The ending is a new beginning, just as our lives, baptized in Christ, are remade and redeemed by this transformative cross of daily forgiveness and renewal, our public coming out, because every part of us has been reconstituted and raised up.
And so we might call this story, The Beginner’s Good-Bye. We say farewell, not only to Jesus at the empty tomb, but we say good-bye to who we have been before – before we knew the crucified one, now raised. We let go of selfish, short-sighted desires, so that we may truly desire what brings joy in our world, the light and life of Christ. We let go of fear, addictions, and hatred, and find self-respect, forgiveness and growth in faith. We find that we are a new self, alive, because “He is risen.” We find in our neighborhoods new possibilities for life, because “he has gone before us,” to occupy the places we live in. The real ending of Mark is grounded in the real-ity of our own human fears – while pointing to the way where true joy is found, in the new life of the risen Christ.