4th Apr 2021
Anglican Episcopal Church
Very early of the first day of the week.
The Gospel of Mark begins at the beginning, which in a sense should come as no surprise to any of us, for that is where we generally expect things to begin. The very first words of the Gospel are after all, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Now, that line immediately reminds us, or should remind us, of the first words of the Bible itself, “In the beginning, God created…” Creation of course does not end in the first three chapters of Genesis, as we might be tempted to think, but continues on to this very day. The fact that we are all sitting here -- or sitting someplace -- and participating in this service today is proof of that.
New Testament scholars debate whether the opening line in Mark’s Gospel, “the Beginning of the Good News,” simply describes the following few verses of Chapter One and the well-known story of John the Baptist in the Wilderness; or whether it is to be understood as Mark’s title for the entire Gospel which he has written, the entire story of Jesus Christ; the implication in this latter case being that the Gospel, and the world it creates or brings into reality, does not end in the story of Jesus’ life and death but rather continues on long after the words of the Gospel account have come to an end.
And the words of the Gospel of Mark come to an end, abruptly enough, in the story of the women at the Empty Tomb which we heard moments ago as related to us in Chapter Sixteen, specifically verses one through eight; a short and straightforward passage which has nevertheless been described as presenting one of the most challenging problems or puzzles in all New Testament research and study. Keep in mind by the way that the original version of Mark’s Gospel almost certainly ended right here at Chapter Sixteen, verse eight; although another ten or so verses were tacked on later by another hand.
And, if the Gospel of Mark begins with John in the Judean Wilderness, a place of foreboding and danger, it ends at an empty tomb and with fear and terror. Indeed, fear is for all intents and purposes the very last word or thought of Mark’s Gospel in both English translation and the original Greek. The women flee the Tomb, we are told, from “terror and amazement… For they were afraid.” No Handel’s Alleluia Chorus for the women at the Tomb. What on earth to make of it…? No wonder the experts have been left scratching their heads for centuries. No wonder someone already took it upon himself shortly after Mark’s time to write a longer and, well, happier ending.
But if the beginning of Mark’s Gospel announces the beginning of the Good News, the ending of the Gospel of Mark is in fact not the end at all. It is at best the end of the beginning of the Gospel. The terrified women at the Empty Tomb of Jesus find themselves in the same spiritual and empty wilderness in which this Gospel began. It is a spiritual wilderness familiar to all of us from time to time as well, whether it be the desert of personal doubt and despair or the wilderness in which we collectively feel the terror and fear of lives in danger and communities disrupted by illness, pandemic, and death. It can seem alas somehow dissonant to sing Alleluia at times such as these.
But that may just be what we need to do. The mysterious but angelic figure whom the Women encounter at the Empty Tomb, the “young man dressed in a white robe,” as he is described in this passage, wisely tells the women to inform the disciples that “Jesus of Nazareth…has been raised…and is going ahead” of them to Galilee; ahead of them indeed but at the same time back to the beginning, back to the Galilee from which Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee emerged at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark just before he encountered John at the Jordan.
In times of doubt and fear, I suppose, it is always wise to go back to one’s origins, back to one’s spiritual roots. The women at the Tomb of course promptly ignore the young man’s directive and, as the text tells us, say “nothing to anyone,” presumably not to the disciples either. Another conundrum or mystery for the scholars to ponder. But if you -- two thousand years later -- are not yourselves at least a little bit fearful and hesitant at hearing the story of Jesus’ Resurrection, maybe you should read it again; you are probably not paying close enough attention. Better, the women must have thought, to keep this to ourselves. That can be our temptation as well.
Still, I suppose, we can feel confident that the disciples did eventually get the memo. Or, we would not be here today. Back to Galilee. Back to origins. Back to the beginning. Back as well to Creation. One contemporary Anglican sage, Bishop NT Tom Wright formerly of Durham, suggests that the story of the Resurrection is in fact the story of the Creation itself. Call it Creation: Part-Two. Or call it Creation: the Sequel. Or, more to the point, it is the story of Creation made anew; the story of a new Genesis, ushered in as was the original one, “very early of the first day of the week.” But in Christ’s Resurrection and the new Creation it represents, the blot upon our world brought about by the original fall or sin of Adam and Eve is forever wiped clean.
And so, the Resurrection is not so much about an Empty Tomb and fearful bystanders or witnesses, as it is about empty lives filled once again with meaning and purpose, lives brought back to that Paradise, once lost; but also challenged to bring that Paradise regained at the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth back to this yet fallen world. Creation is not over. And, the Gospel, begun in the writings of Mark and the other evangelists, continues on in our lives today.
Amid fear and uncertainty, we today still proclaim that Resurrection, as have generations before us; generations which have proclaimed faith and Resurrection amid the ruins of war and genocide, amid the chaos and turmoil of worlds long past. Resurrection after all, as Bishop Tom reminds us, is not so much about heaven to come as it is about the regeneration of Creation itself. Christ’s Resurrection is hope made real; but made real in our lives today. Our task is to proclaim this reality to a world sorely in need of hope and promise.
For, the story of our Lord’s Resurrection is still as powerful and awesome -- and as fearsome -- as it was at that Empty Tomb in Jerusalem centuries ago. Yet, it is from that Empty Tomb, from that “formless void and darkness” as Genesis would have it, that the earth and all that is in it is made new. From that Tomb, bereft of all living, comes life itself, life eternal. Perhaps like the women at the Tomb, we too should at first be silent in the face of so great a mystery. Perhaps we too need to have the stone of unbelief and apprehension moved aside for us. We too need to get back to basics.
And so, perhaps we have needed our routine and workaday world altered and maybe even shattered. But from that broken world, from that stone moved aside, and from the women’s great silence, must ultimately come a message of hope and renewal proclaimed loud and clear for all the world to hear. As followers of Christ, it has been said, we believe in order to see. And what we see in the Resurrection is lives transformed; the world transformed to what it was always meant to be.
“Let the whole world see and know,” we pray in one of the final collects of our Good Friday liturgy, “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” Christ’s Resurrection is finally the most real thing -- the newest thing -- there is or ever was or ever will be.
The Lord is risen indeed.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus