As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love a good story, whether I am telling it or listening to it. The satisfying thing about stories, especially traditional ones is that, by and large, they tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and at the end there is some resolution. The criminal is unmasked, the lovers get together, things are rounded off, if not neatly then at least enough to feel it had been worth ploughing through the rest of it.
By that reckoning, Mark’s Gospel is a bit of a failure, to be honest. The passage we just heard was the end of it. “Terror and amazement seized [the women]; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid…” And that’s it
I mean, it’s a bit rubbish isn’t it?. As an ending. It doesn’t even really make sense, because if they said nothing to anyone, how did anyone find out that the tomb was empty, that Christ had risen? How did the story of the resurrection - the whole Christian faith - ever get off the ground?
If you’re beginning to smell a rat, you wouldn’t be the only one. Biblical scholars are pretty convinced that at a very early stage in the transmission of Mark’s Gospel, within 50 years or so of its composition, the last page simply got lost. We have to remember that this was long before printing, let alone the kind of digital technology we take for granted. When documents were hand written, there wouldn’t have been lots of copies around, especially at the beginning of their life. If a page got lost, that was probably it. There was no 2autosave function to come to the rescue.
The early church wasn’t a big organisation, just small groups of Christians dotted around the Mediterranean. It had no power or wealth, and its members were intermittently persecuted. It didn’t have libraries or archives to carefully store the writings of its early leaders, so it’s perfectly possible to believe that the last page of a loosely bound pile of papers, or the last part of a scroll, might have been damaged or torn, or just left behind somewhere.
Attempts were made to put things right early on by adding endings, based on the other Gospels, but the original is what it is, a document that finishes with fear and amazement and silence.
And maybe that’s no bad thing.
I suspect that the reason we like stories with beginnings, middles and ends is that, in reality, life isn’t like that. We can’t remember our beginnings. We don’t know our ends. We are stuck in a perpetual middle. Even if we think we have got life sorted we soon discover that there are more problems to be solved, new developments – good or bad – we hadn’t anticipated. We don’t know what’s around the next corner.
This last year has shown us that, even if we didn’t realise it before. Whatever any of us thought 2020 would contain, I doubt we had a pandemic on our radar. Yet here we are, picking our way through a landscape that has often felt completely alien, learning new skills, facing new challenges, bearing new burdens, but also, sometimes, finding new joys as well, strengthened bonds with one another, a deeper appreciation of what we have. In truth, disaster planners had long put pandemic disease right at the top of the list of likely threats to the world, but I’m guessing that most of us didn’t see it coming, or, if we did, we didn’t know how it would affect us or what it would involve.
And, of course, it isn’t over. We are still in the middle of this part of our story, not knowing how long it will last, or what the world will look like when the tide of disease finally retreats, what flotsam and jetsam will be left behind.
Real life isn’t like the stories of which we are so fond, at least not from our point of view. Easter Sunday isn’t a happy-ever-after ending. It isn’t an ending at all in fact. The women who fled in terror from the tomb and the angel’s message knew that. According to the other Gospels, they did indeed do what the angel told them to – they went and told the other disciples what they had heard and seen. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here now, still telling the story. But I’m not surprised that they were terrified. They knew that this message, for all its joy, would bring them unimaginable challenges. Maybe, as Jesus lay in the tomb, they had started to resign themselves to slinking off home, hoping people would forget they had been followers of this apparently failed Messiah – a good man perhaps, but someone who’d never stood a chance, like all the others who’d stood up to the might of Rome. But the resurrection proclaimed that Jesus hadn’t failed, and that his way was the way they should still be following. It proclaimed that hope, love and life had triumphed over despair, hatred and death. It called them, and all who still follow the risen Christ, to live life in the light of Easter, daring to expect that tombs which appear to be sealed shut can be opened, that injustice that seems entrenched can be remedied, that divisions that seem to be unbridgeable can be bridged.
“Do not be alarmed” said the white-robed messenger who greeted them at the tomb. Angels are always saying that “ Fear not, don’t be afraid!” It’s their trademark opening line. But whenever an angel says that, we know that it’s because people are alarmed and afraid, usually with good reason, and so would we be. Good news can be just as challenging as bad news, even if it turns out to be a lot more exciting and fruitful in the end than bad news.
So, although I do like a good story, I also really like the fact that Mark’s Gospel has this unfinished ending. It’s a reminder that each of us is called to be part of this story, the Easter story, the Resurrection story, taking up the thread of it in our own lives, letting it open our eyes to the hope, love and life that our world needs, living out that story in the places God has called us to.
Easter isn’t a moment when we close the book, with a sigh of pleasure, and think to ourselves “that was good…now what shall I read next?”. It’s the moment when a new world dawns, when we are invited to step out on a new journey with the God who lived, died and rose again for us.