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April 12, 2009
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8
Mark’s version of the empty tomb story might seem a poor choice, as an alternative to the elaborate Johannine text, for Easter Sunday. After all, there isn’t much of a resurrection story there. The women who come to the tomb find it empty, and they hear an announcement of Jesus’ resurrection by the young man in a white robe. But Mark gives no accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and the women fail to tell the others that he has been raised and simply flee in terror. End of story. It is, however, the peculiar and ambiguous character of Mark’s ending that makes it a particularly enticing text for the times in which we live.
Recent literary interpreters of Mark understand the strange ending against the background of two central Marcan themes: the failure of the twelve and the contrasting faithfulness of minor characters. In all three synoptic gospels, the twelve flee for their lives when Jesus is arrested, but Mark creates a much more negative image of their prior behavior than do either Matthew or Luke. Their failure to understand Jesus is more persistent—a trait the narrator attributes to their hardness of heart (6:52)—and the lack of appearance stories in Mark deprives the reader of visions of their ultimate restoration to Jesus’ fellowship. The last things we hear about them are that they all desert him (14:50) and that Peter denies him three times (14:66-72). Minor characters, however, minister to him in various ways. (See David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 2d ed., Fortress, 1999) Simon the leper, for example, invites him to dinner (14:3); and a woman anoints him in 14:3-9—to the consternation of some who are present. And among the faithful we must count the three women who have accompanied him from Galilee and watch the crucifixion from a distance, when the twelve are completely absent (15:40-41). It is these same women who come to the tomb to anoint his body, and the reader’s inclination is to hope that they will succeed where the twelve have failed. Clearly, the women among the disciples appear better than the men. However, the ending of the scene dashes the reader’s hope when the women flee; and the story ends with no one to proclaim that God has raised Jesus from the dead.
Mary Ann Tolbert (Sowing the Gospel, Fortress Press, 1989) understands the disappointing ending as an invitation for the reader to participate in the story. Since the women are the only characters in the story who have reason to believe that Jesus has been raised, their failure to proclaim the resurrection leaves this task to the reader. But what, may we ask—building on Tolbert’s insights—qualifies the reader? The answer is that the reader has, through the medium of the story, “heard” Jesus’ words and “seen” his deeds and has also “heard” the testimonies of God’s voice from above (1:11; 9:7) and of the young man in white at the empty tomb.
The “incomplete” ending, in other words, invites readers to look back over the story and answer the question Jesus asks in 8:29: “But who do you say that I am?” And if the events in the story incline the readers to answer with a confession of faith, then the astonishing claim that God has raised him from the dead begins to take on credibility. But the openness of the ending also invites the readers, who live in the post-resurrection situation, to look forward from the story to their own time and their own experience. That is, the question about an event in the past—Jesus’ emergence from the tomb—is transmuted into a question about the present: does their day-to-day experience in the here in now in fact testify to the presence of the risen Christ among them?
Mark’s strange ending is thus particularly appropriate for seekers in the modern/postmodern world, because it directs attention away from issues surrounding claims of supernatural interventions and focuses on everyday human experience. The question is therefore no longer whether one can put one’s scientific world-view aside and believe that God makes breaches in the laws of nature but whether the story of Jesus—of his words and his deeds and the empty tomb—connects with what we already know of life. But this does not mean that the story is redundant, that it is capable only of telling us what we already know. For the story itself changes things. Although it awakens an understanding of life that is in some sense available to people in all times and places, the fact that it is told and that we hear it changes our life-situation if we allow ourselves to become truly engaged by it.
It is all-important, however, to remember that, especially in the context of the gospels, the story of the empty tomb does not stand alone. There is a kind of theology that deals with the resurrection in an abstract way, disconnecting it from the concrete details of Jesus’ life and thus depriving it of moral content and of either existential or social-political relevance. None of the modes of resurrection proclamation—empty tomb stories, appearance accounts, or bare announcements that “he has been raised”—are capable of engaging us as whole persons apart from the prior appeal of a Jesus who
- preached love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34)
- forgave sins (Mark 2:1-12) and ate with sinners (Mark 1:13-17)
- placed human welfare above traditional legal requirements (Mark 2:23-3:6) and broke taboos and boundaries (1:41)
- sided with the “underside” of humanity (9:35-37; 10:17-27; 12:41-44) and confronted oppressive power in the name of God’s rule (14:53-15:20)
- and was faithful unto death.
Mark’s ending, precisely because of its “incompleteness,” is a good reminder of that fact. And the alternative epistle lesson, Acts 10:34-43, is a good complement to the Marcan reading, since it prefaces the resurrection proclamation with a summary of Jesus’ ministry—encapsulated in the words, “how we went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”
A treatment of the resurrection story that de-centers the supernatural fits well with a process theological perspective, which dismantles the traditional natural/supernatural dichotomy. And in doing so, it also helps to bridge the gap between approaches to Easter that embrace the pagan theme of the springtime renewal of nature and those that shun that them in favor of an exclusive focus on God’s action in history. If the story of the resurrection changes things, then we can indeed embrace that latter theme, whether or not we speak of God’s suspension of the laws of nature. But if the deepest function of the story is in fact to direct us to Christ’s continuing presence with us in ordinary circumstances, rather than to focus exclusively on an event in the past, then we can also allow natural processes to bear their own testimony to that salvific presence.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).