On this Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing women we commemorate those women who were the first to encounter the Empty Tomb and the proclamation of the Risen Christ by the angel, namely: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary); Joanna; Salome (the mother of James and John); Mary the wife of Cleopas (or Alphaeus); and according to tradition three others—Susanna, Mary of Bethany and Martha of Bethany. We have here many women, who later became many witnesses for Christ. The gospel appointed for today tells the story in St Mark’s account.
Now St Mark’s Gospel is largely the compilation of St Peter’s own witness to Christ, as attested by Papias, and is generally reckoned today to be the first gospel to be written down. There is a curious feature at the end of St Mark’s Gospel; and this is picked up in the selection of versus appointed to be read on this Sunday, namely only the first eight verses are selected to be read. The longer ending, versus 9 to 20, is omitted from the earliest complete manuscript copies of the gospel, namely the codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus; and there are other ancient witnesses that agree with this important omission. Although this longer ending is undoubtedly part of canonical Scripture, its Marcan authorship is less sure. The original ending may have been lost; but, be that as it may, there is considerable historical evidence that St Mark’s Gospel originally ended at verse 8; and it is that working assumption which I shall take as the basis for today’s sermon. So let us listen again to verse 8.. It says concerning the myrrh bearing women: -
“So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Many people find this abrupt ending highly unsatisfactory, but I am not so sure. The abrupt ending may be very important for the theology of St Mark’s Gospel in relation both to the Incarnation and the Resurrection of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Consider that St Mark, unlike the other Gospel writers, also begins his gospel very abruptly. There is no account of the birth of Christ, the infancy narratives or even a direct theological statement about the Incarnation. We are presented instead with the baptism of Christ without any preamble; and we are then taken at breakneck speed through the life, work and passion of Christ until we reach this end point. Then, as in the beginning, we are left hanging, left asking questions. “Whence came this man and where is He now?”- as with the women, we too fearfully stand and gawp at the empty tomb.
But isn’t that the whole point? It is not that St Mark’s (or rather St Peter) did not know where Jesus had come from or, perhaps knowing, did not care too much for the detail of his birth. Nor is it possible that St Peter, being the first man to take the women’s witness to the resurrection seriously, left this out as of no importance. Choosing to leave out the key questions of the origin and climax of the Christ event may instead have had a dramatic purpose, a very insightful psychological objective.
The better storytellers, teachers and preachers rarely give the whole story when they want their hearers to engage personally with the narrative. For example, it is in Mark’s Gospel at Caesarea Philippi that St Peter is challenged by our Lord concerning his identity and his destiny. Jesus says to St Peter and the other disciples after he has discussed varying views concerning who he is: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). St Peter has to work it out for himself. He says “the Christ” but then proceeds to get it all wrong about the way of sorrows and suffering that will lead to the cross. Nonetheless, Jesus asked first. Like any good teacher he doesn’t give St Peter the answer; he wants St Peter to fight through to the conclusion himself.
If we apply this insight to the shorter ending of St Mark’s Gospel we are left with a personal challenge, as we stand with the dumb struck myrrh bearing women before the empty tomb. Are we going to stay there, moronically gawping at a hole, fearful of saying anything to anybody, or are we like these women going to move on, truly believe what the angel cried - that Christ is truly risen and has gone before us - not only to Galilee but to every place? As we know from the Gospels of St Matthew, St Luke and St John, the women did preach the resurrection to the apostles, some of whom, as St Luke’s says, did regard their testimony as an idle tale, reflecting the current prejudice of the times that the witness of a woman could not be trusted. Yet St Peter did hesitantly believe them and then found out definitively for himself. Note that once again St Peter took the initiative personally to find out.
St Peter was never satisfied with the warmed-up leftovers of other people’s experience. He was consistently determined to find out for himself. Isn’t that the point, as I have said, of his account of things as recorded by Saint Mark? St Peter wants us to do what he did, to find out for ourselves where this man, Our Lord Jesus Christ, came from, who this man is and where He is now. We could, of course, just accept without question the answers in the Scriptures or in the Tradition of the Church, but to do so without making this story of the empty tomb part of our personal journey of faith leaves us as merely passive observers, unchanged by what we witness and by what we can and should seek out for ourselves.
So in relation to the shorter ending of St Mark’s Gospel specifically with reference to the empty tomb discovered by the myrrh bearing women, I think there is great significance and value in accepting the reality that both St Peter and St Mark intended this account of the death of Christ to end with a huge question mark: “Where is our Lord Jesus Christ now? Could it be that he is truly alive? What would be the significance for me of that astounding possibility?”
Every year we each need to rediscover afresh for ourselves the power of Christ’s resurrection, never to consider the life and death of Christ on earth as simply a vaguely familiar story that has been robbed of its power to save because of our disengagement from the risen Christ. St Peter and St Mark are saying that we must seek out now both nearby and in the world around us who Christ is in all His fullness. The message of St Peter, adopted by St Mark in his gospel is clear: Leave the empty tomb behind, because that empty tomb is simply the place of the dead. Christ has no place there; neither have you. Find Christ where creation sings, where love reigns and where death is no more. Move out on your own journey of oneness with Christ and leave everything less worthy behind seeking that pearl of great price, the kingdom of God, where each of us can find the presence of the Risen Lord, to whom with the Father and the Spirit we ascribe as is justly due all might, dominion, power and praise, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.