Scripture scholars believe that the first Gospel to have been written was the Gospel according to Saint Mark. They date that Gospel at 65 A.D. That Gospel was supposedly written for a Roman audience. Another peculiarity of the Gospel of Mark is that it has multiple endings. A “shorter ending” that ends with Mark 16: 8 and the longer more familiar ending Mark 16: 9-19. The longer ending contains all of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances and is regarded as canonical by Catholics, as a result of the Tridentine decree on the Canon. Scripture scholars; however regard the longer ending as non-Marcan (on the basis of different style, vocabulary, and subject matter). One can sympathize with the Council of Trent, after all the “shorter ending” is anti-climatic at best, and leaves the reader with a host of troubling and annoying questions.
In the shorter ending, the women come to the tomb of Jesus early on Easter morning to perform all of the preparations for burial that they could not perform on Good Friday, because the Sabbath was about to begin. They discover that the stone that sealed the tomb has been removed and that the tomb is empty. They encounter a young man at the tomb who informs them that Jesus is not to be found here. The young man instructs the women to “tell the disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee: there you will see him, as he told you.” The women’s reaction is to flee the tomb and the shorter ending concludes with the words: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Mark leaves us with an empty tomb on Easter. He does not “tie everything up” for us and present us with “the Glory of Easter.” The most striking thing about Mark’s “shorter ending” is how brutally true to life it is. What were the women and the other disciples left with on that first Easter morning? What are any of us left with after the death of someone we loved?
We are left with our memories. We are left with the echoes of laughter, we find ourselves among intimate friends; repeating very old jokes, as if we are telling them for the very first time. Places that we once knew and revisit, seem both cruelly familiar and like the tomb in Mark’s Gospel, painfully empty. Like the women, we are left speechless. We are, however, left also with our memories. A truth that a professor taught us, or that we discovered with friends. Sometimes with a truth that life has forcefully taught us.
Pontius Pilate is irritated and asks, “What is truth” (John 18: 38). Contemporary people share Pilate’s frustration. There are so many contending “faiths” so many different opinions, each presenting themselves as “the truth.” What is the truth? Jesus remained silent in the face of Pilate’s question. God/life does not give us “the answer,” religious leaders eagerly do that. God/life simply is. The truth is not an intellectual abstraction, nor is it merely a proposition. The truth simply is. As Moses was told: I AM. As a psychology professor of mine once put it, it is “reality therapy.” It simply is.
The women at the tomb had good reason to be afraid. They had just been the victims of hatred. They had seen the justice system that was supposed to protect them, produce injustice. They said nothing to anyone, because of a lifetime of having been dismissed. After all, they were “just” women. This dead Rabbi was different. He taught them to see the divine spark within themselves. He actually listened to them. He considered them. He valued them and taught them to appreciate and value themselves. Now he was gone and all that was left was the world with all of its cruelty, with all of its countless injustices, with all of its selfish and cynical manipulations.
This “rings true” with many people. How could God permit this? How could God let this happen (to me)? Mark’s empty tomb is the angst of every person. We are left with cold, hard realities. We have the faint, the fleeting wisps of noble thoughts, of values illustrated by people who loved us. People worthy of love. People who inspire love and who inspire the most noble within us. These precious truths give us the vision and the strength to walk against the torrents of injustice, hatred and evil that each of us must confront in our daily lives.
God does not give us all of the answers. God does not dot all of the “i’s” and bar all of the “t’s” Our plaintive “why?” is met with silence. A good teacher, after all, does not give the answer to the student. A good teacher teaches the student how to discover the answer. A great teacher teaches the student how to compose the question. Why? God/life is a great teacher. Simply providing the answer would leave us dependent and subject to manipulation by others. “The truth” would remain external to our self. Empowering us to be able to discover the answer and ultimately to compose the questions, this both transforms us and makes each of us a force for transformation, a force for good.
The “empty tomb” is the world. Each of us, like the women in Mark, must face our own personal “greatest fears.” Each of us, like the women in Mark, has attempted to run away from our fears. Like the women, fear has paralyzed us into silence. God/life will continually place those fear directly in our path, again and again. Not to be cruel, but because, only by confronting our fears can we overcome them and move forward. We can’t run away from ourselves, and there is really where the fear resides and where it must be met. Until we confront our deepest fears, we will be enslaved by them and be condemned to live a “half life.” The young Rabbi from Nazareth taught us: “fear is useless, what is needed is trust” (Luke 8: 50).
Trusting God is easy, after all, God is GAWD!! Trusting our self is entirely another matter. We are small, limited, weak and all too prone to make mistakes and succumb to temptation. Those who would be God’s professional spokespeople are all to eager to emphasize and exploit our fears. They will be the arbiters of what is “right” of what is “true.” “You,” they tell us, cannot be trusted with such great matters. Yet, those “great matters” are at the very core of what it is to be truly human. Each of us must wrestle personally with those great matters in our lives. The choices we make both shape and ultimately define us. An attempt to abdicate personal responsibility by delegating it to some other person, or organization will fail morally. As those who stated that they were “just following orders” at the Nuremberg Trials discovered. More importantly, such an attempt will make us slaves and leave us at “square one” of personal and spiritual development.
Mark presents us with an empty space on Easter morning; we can view it as a place that claims life, or as a starting point for new life. Each of us lives in a seemingly all too cold and uncaring world. The truth will not be found “there,” however the world forces us to face our fears, by continuously confronting us with those fears. Each of us must chose to either master those fears, or permit our fears to become our master.
Becoming spiritually whole is not about attaining the self-satisfaction of imagined peace and happiness; it is about achieving integrity and honesty in one’s relationship with God, oneself and others. Peace and happiness are the consequences that flow out of that spiritual wholeness, both for the true self and others. Through this process, love is expanded in the world. The empty tomb (the world), like the women, is transformed from a place of death/decomposition to a place of life/integration. Rather than being an end to life, it becomes a transformation and renewal of life.
Mark does not conclude his Gospel with a “neat and unquestionably certain set of answers,” because God/life does not present us with such a package. God/life requires each of us to discover those answers and compose those questions for ourselves. In doing this, we are transformed and become agents for transformation. We discover authentic love and expand it in the world.