The honorary director of lay discipleship in the Diocese in Europe, Dr Clare Amos, reflects on the abrupt ending to the Gospel of Mark.
Perhaps the chief glory of Christian scripture is the fact that it contains four Gospels, four different portrayals of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those earth-shattering events at the heart of our faith were too powerful to be captured solely by one telling. The Gospels challenge us by their similarities and by their differences. Probably each of us has our favourite – which addresses in a particular way our individual life story and our personality.
It is the Gospel of Mark which speaks especially powerfully to me. I love its sense of mystery and paradox, its numinous quality married to a strange down-to-earthness, its honouring of the “little people” who briefly appear in Jesus’ story. I cherish the urgency with which the Gospel begins, and its insistence that the “way” that Jesus took, and the way in which his disciples must follow, is a path of suffering. In the Middle East, where I lived as a young adult, an experience which formed my own spirituality and theology, the Christian community is today seemingly called to live out that story of pain and glory. Mark is a Gospel which speaks into their situation. St Mark is of course the patron saint of the church in Egypt, whose Christians have recently endured much difficulty and danger.
I am not sure why the feast of St Mark is linked to 25 April, but it feels very appropriate, coming each year in the weeks after Easter. For the special strangeness of Mark’s Gospel is nowhere more apparent than in the puzzle offered by the ending of his story. Most modern versions of the Bible make it clear that Mark 16: 9-20 was not part of the original edition of the Gospel. Rather it was added later in the second century because Mark 16: 8 felt too uncomfortable and inconclusive to be a proper conclusion.
The NRSV text of this verse reads, “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Is this how a resurrection narrative should conclude? In Greek the last word of Mark 16.8 is gar which means “for’” and which is normally considered too insignificant to end a sentence, let alone a chapter or a book. Some have wondered whether Mark was prevented from writing a more complete ending, or whether it somehow got lost through the vagaries of history and transmission.
But in recent years the view has gained currency that this strange verse was perhaps exactly where Mark intended to end his Gospel – for by doing so he was sharing something vital about the resurrection. Mark 16: 1-8 is brief and sparse. There is no unambiguous appearance of the resurrected Jesus. Rather a “young man” speaks to the women and promises them that Jesus will go ahead of them to Galilee, and that they will see him there. It is intriguing how the vocabulary of this chapter echoes an earlier episode – Mark 10: 32-34, where Jesus was “going ahead” of his disciples to Jerusalem, and those who followed were terrified and amazed.
I believe that we are meant to connect the two: just as Jesus had led his frightened followers towards Jerusalem and his passion, so now he leads them to Galilee and resurrection. They were being called then to share in his passion; now they are being called to share in his resurrection. For Jesus’ death and resurrection is not only as a past event in history. It must also be imprinted in the life of every believer. And so that unfinished ending may be deliberate. It is like a sentence that ends in three dots, suggesting that the meaning of the resurrection is to be worked out in the lives and the witness of Jesus’ disciples.
The resurrection of Jesus does not mean there is no longer a task for us to do. The mission of God continues in our world today. Mark is telling us that it is our role to complete the sentence, and live out this resurrection story which has no end. As this short prayer puts it:
Lord of the unfinished sentence,
The grammar of your resurrection is irregular,
Your syntax is demanding.
Help us to translate your language of love,
Into the story of our own lives.