"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Gospel for Easter Day (1 April 2018)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

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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)

Introductory notes

General

The Gospel to be read omits the last sentence of this passage – “So they went out etc.”. This 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 stole, 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.)

Reflection

A little before his death, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is supposed to have remarked: “I don't know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Reality is inexhaustibly intelligible. That inexhaustible intelligibility is rightly called mystery. The more we know the more we know we do not know. Although there are many problems in life, life itself is not one of them. Problems have solutions. There is no solution to life. Life is a mystery to be lived not a problem to be solved.

“The finest thing that we can experience is mystery. It is the fundamental emotion that is at the roots of true science. Those who cannot know it, those who cannot admire, those who are no longer capable of experiencing a sense of wonder, might as well be dead.” (Albert Einstein, from 1932 recording.) Do not be frightened by the fact that you do not understand. Rejoice rather that you have come to a moment of insight. That moment can engender the most precious attitude of all: Awe! It will also help you to avoid the fictions and illusions that rationalism promotes. In case you had not noticed, rationalism is in the very air we breathe. “I do not understand but I do believe!” is a truly adult statement.

On that first Easter morning, Jesus’ disciples found themselves confronted with a reality that they could not begin to understand, let alone explain. Mark tells us that the women, “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. Entirely understandable! Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had grown to love and appreciate, and who died an ugly death as a criminal, continues to be with them. All the descriptions indicate, overwhelmingly, that this is more than a fond memory. It is also something quite different from mass hysteria.

Nothing short of an actual experience of Jesus after his death could have wrought the life-changing effects in so many individuals, in different places at different times. They were then able to bear witness in such a way that others encountered Jesus through them. And that life-giving and life-changing encounter has been passed on down the ages, by millions of people, in many different cultures and circumstances. He lives!

Being Christian is not about dogma or law, though dogma and law are essential. Being Christian is not about right behaviour, though there is a profound moral vision there. Nobody says it better than Pope Benedict: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus caritas est, #1)