This has been a bizarre Easter season for all of us. Normally, after we have done our Lenten work, Easter and its hope are celebrated. I keep reaching out for that, and you probably are as well, but where is that Easter joy that used to be so easily achieved? It may seem precariously out of reach during this time of our coronavirus isolation. Probably because of the fear we feel.
There are obviously four Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus: from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew’s version is dramatic, with a thrill of conspiracy and the challenge of the Great Commission. In Luke’s Gospel, the male disciples dismiss the women’s good news and then get terrified when they think they see a ghost. St. John emphasized the seemingly petty detail that he could run faster than his fellow disciple Peter and also included “Doubting Thomas”. Regardless, Jesus inevitably shows himself. Then there’s Mark’s version. The Gospel of Mark isn’t an Easter favorite under ordinary circumstances. Why? Its ending is disconcertingly strange. But as we deal with this Easter amid the coronavirus pandemic, Mark may be the perfect focus for our reflection.
The Gospels are not ordered chronologically in the Bible. Mark’s is the earliest Gospel, written several decades before the others. It is also the shortest with only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. Like the other three Gospel writers, Mark recounts the visit of Mary Magdalene and her companions to the tomb of Jesus on the first Easter morning. Upon arriving, they find the stone removed and a young man tells them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’” Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:6).
Is it there that the Gospel simply ends! No Jesus? Supported by the early Church Fathers Eusebius and Jerome, the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark ended at Mark 16:8. This original ending of Mark was viewed by later Christians as so deficient that two attempts were made to provide a more satisfactory conclusion. A “longer ending” was added by editors to try to remedy things. Modern scholars have proposed many explanations for the abrupt original ending, though none with universal acceptance. So, in this crazy time for all of us, let’s look for our own explanation.
Notice the original last word of Mark’s Gospel. The original text ends with fear. In this Easter season 2020, we seek the commission of Matthew, the joy of Luke, and the comfort of John. With unsettling news headlines about the virus, like the early Christians, we do not like the fear and ambiguity of the original text of Mark.
While in Mark the resurrection is announced, it is not witnessed. The disciples’ world has ended, and they’re not sure they can trust the hope they’ve been offered. That is us. So far removed from what our lives used to be like, we may feel, much like the women in Mark 16, that we have received a too-brief report that Christ is risen. Like them, we wonder: Where is he now? Where is he while terror and amazement have seized us?
Please don’t lose hope. I think we can hear the commission of Matthew, find the joy of Luke, and the comfort of John, if we do our spiritual listening and work. Let’s focus on how Mark’s Gospel originally concluded. Let’s not miss out on the strange wisdom of God. The way Mark’s book originally finishes encourages us to explore, all the more, our desire to grab for assurances but not necessarily rely on our faith.
Whether it be for us in prayer with Jesus or in our discussion with someone else, this can make for an excellent and important conversation about the fear and doubt we are all experiencing in these upsetting times. Without our world being turned upside down by this virus, I may never have realized that I had been taking Easter for granted. How do I take another leap of faith like I did so many years ago? How do I begin trusting in the Lord no matter what? How do I become awestruck once again at the work of God?
Mark’s original ending pushes us to ask these questions, to admit our uncertainty and acknowledge our fear. We don’t know what will happen next, but this is an invitation to seek the risen Lord even though his victory over death is not yet fully seen. Hang in there, friends. Our Hope truly lives.