Not many of us are published authors, but most of us tell stories. Are you longing for the time when you can sit at a café table with some friends again and share a good yarn? Chatting on the phone, over social media, or a conference call is one thing, but listening to some one tell a story in person is a real treat.
But how do you end a story? When I began preaching in church, the vicar who was training me told me that I needed to learn how to end well. Apparently, waiting for my sermons to end was a bit like wondering when the plane would land. Just when you thought the runway was in sight, there would be another circuit of the airport! Only you can judge whether I have improved!
If we are telling a joke, getting the punch line right is critical. A fairy story will usually end with the words: ‘…and they all lived happily ever after.’ Novelists find all sorts of ways to end their books. Some will conclude with a cliff hanger…so that you will buy the sequel. Others will end abruptly for effect. Recently I read ‘Rebecca’, a wonderful story by Daphne du Maurier. The opening words are well known: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Manderley is an ancestral home. The night it burns down ends the novel, prompting the dream with which it begins. The final words catch the reader unawares: ‘And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.’
Our reading for today has the closing words of Mark’s story of Jesus. He opens his book with: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (Mark 1.1) The punch line comes at chapter 15.39 when having watched Jesus die on the cross, a Roman centurion proclaims: ‘Truly this man was God’s son.’ The nature of Jesus’s death convinces this Gentile military officer that Jesus really is God’s son, the truth of which Mark set out to convince his readers.
What happens next? Should Mark have ended it there? Well, it would have been difficult because Mark was not making it up. This is not fiction. He was writing about the life of a man who had changed his life and the lives of many and made them see the world in a new light. With people who had witnessed Jesus’ earthly life beginning to pass away, Mark is keen that the story is not lost, but will serve for future generations. Whereas the death of someone is usually the end of their story, it is not so with Jesus. The men may have all fled the scene but many of the women who supported Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Salome; they were still at the cross; they saw him die. They knew he was dead and then they saw him placed in the tomb of a rich and respected man called Joseph of Arimathea and the huge stone rolled across the entrance to seal it tight. Still, this was not the end of the story.
Mark opens a 16th chapter with the same women, the only witnesses, returning to the tomb with spices to anoint the body according to custom. Because Jesus died just before the sabbath started there had been no time to do this properly beforehand. With the sabbath over, they come to the tomb to finish the job wondering how on earth they will get in. The large disk-shaped stone set in a little channel formed the doorway. It would have been difficult for the women to budge but when they reached the tomb, the stone is already rolled back. Looking inside, there’s a young man dressed in white, presumed to be an angelic presence. He tells them plainly that Jesus is not in the tomb because he has been raised from the dead. They must pass the message back to the men, to the disciples and to Peter, that he will go ahead of them into Galilee. ‘There you will see him just as he told you.’ (Mark 16.7) Even though the angel told them not to be afraid, Mark says that they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ (Mark 16.8) That’s the end of the gospel! The last line, certainly according to the oldest and most authentic manuscripts. Mark’s gospel has no polished crafted end such as Matthew or sequel as in the case of Luke and Acts. The gospel ends with the greatest truth of the Christian gospel entrusted to women running scarred.
Did Mark intend to end at that point? Or did he write a bit more which has been lost? Opinion has varied over time. Many in the earliest church clearly felt it should have a bit added on and some of these alternative endings appear in our bibles.
While we might well ponder how Mark’s gospel ends, there are three further points to consider from these verses.
Firstly, the way the mundane and the extraordinary blend together in Mark’s telling of the story. The spices they bring to anoint his body, that the sun had just risen, the conversation about how the stone might be moved and then the unprecedented angelic appearance but with a calm coherent message for the women and the other disciples. Given how momentous the discovery of this empty was, Mark hardly gives it Hollywood treatment. As we read and reread his account, we can sense an attempt to accurately record what took place, the memories of the two Marys and Salome because that’s how it happened.
Secondly, at this critical point in this telling of the Jesus story, it is the women who are centre stage. If Mark were wanting to make this all up, he might have found more credible witnesses for his time…men of standing. Instead, it is these three women who watch and see Jesus die…that he is dead, see him placed in the tomb noting where it is and are the first to find it empty and receive a heavenly message that he has been raised…because that’s how it happened.
Thirdly, perhaps Mark’s gospel ends as it does because the story has not finished. Yes, the Holy Spirit would come, and the story of the early church be written up in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters. But Jesus had talked about coming that we might have life and have it to the full. (John 10.10) As we open our hearts to the risen Christ, receive his love, forgiveness and wholeness, all of his followers continue the story that Mark wrote.
This thought is captured in the final words of a great series of novels by C S Lewis. The Last Battle, the last of the Narnia books ends like this: ‘ All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better that the one before.’
Easter Day 04.04.2021