Getting an ending right is not easy. Just ask the writers of popular TV shows like Dexter, Game of Thrones, The Good Place, or Seinfeld. The last episode of each of these series left fans confused and disappointed, muttering to themselves, “Wait, what? That can’t really be how things end, could it?”
I wonder if the early church felt the same about the Gospel of Mark.
Mark is the church’s earliest and shortest Gospel, forming the backbone of the narratives we find in Matthew and Luke. Of its 16 chapters, 8 are focused on the last week of Jesus’ life. Because of this, Mark has been called a Passion narrative with an extended introduction.
What is most remarkable, and shocking, about the Gospel of Mark is how it ends. After finding the tomb empty, three women encounter a young man, dressed in white, who instructs them to report what they have seen to the disciples and to Peter. The original story then abruptly concludes with these words, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
What do we do with an ending like this?
What do we do with witnesses who are immobilized by fear? What do we do with disciples who, though tending to speak up at all the wrong times throughout the Gospel, now somehow can’t find their voice? What do we do when a Gospel concludes without explicit reference to the resurrection?
One option would be to fast forward to the happier endings given to us by the other Gospel writers, whether it’s the great commission in Matt 28:18-20, the picture of joyous worship in Luke 24:52-53, or the invitation to “feed my sheep” in John 21:17. Another option would be to rework the ending of Mark’s story, which is exactly what happened in the early church. Somewhere along the line, the material that we find after 16:8 was added in stages to the original manuscript of Mark, effectively providing a more positive – if not bizarre (see the piece on snake handling in 16:18) – conclusion to the Gospel.
Though we have the other three Gospels plus the longer ending of Mark available to us in our Scriptures, I think now more than ever we need to sit with Mark’s shorter, more unsettling ending.
We need the original ending to Mark’s story because it’s our story. However well educated, however well trained, however many cohorts we are in, we know what it’s like to be disciples gripped by the fear of the unknown, stunned to silence by the realities we are facing. We know what it’s like to wear the mask of the self-sufficient, I’ve-got-it-all-figured-out leader when, in fact, we are feeling utterly lost and depleted. We know what it’s like to have to preach and teach and write and blog all while we struggle to find the right words and the authenticity of our own voices. We know what it’s like to sometimes feel that our lives and work would be much easier if it turned out that the tomb hadn’t been empty in the first place.
Mark’s original ending resonates with the theme of the failure of the disciples that runs throughout this Gospel. And isn’t this failure good news for the church? From cover to cover, our Scriptures don’t give us stories of faithful leaders who resiliently serve God. No, the Scriptures give us a story of a God who is relentlessly faithful to people just like those terrified witnesses we find at the end of Mark. They are God’s beloved no less than you or me – indeed, we are they, and they are we. Their inclusion in the story is an invitation for us to shed the burden of perfectionism, competency, self-sufficiency, and have-it-all-togetherness. It’s a canonical reminder to not give up on our congregations or colleagues, even when they fail and falter.
The second reason it’s good to sit with the shorter version of Mark is that its enigmatic ending is really no ending at all. It’s a beginning. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is always telling the disciples to keep his identity a secret. The reason for this is not to contain the good news within the “in crowd” of his disciples; rather, it’s because Mark knows that one can’t ever really understand Jesus’ identity apart from the reality of the resurrection.
The truth and power of the resurrection doesn’t hinge on the witness of those women from long ago, it hinges on our witness here and now. We are called into the story, or rather to keep the story going. Mark’s unsatisfying non-ending is the starting line for those who strive to run the race of faith set out before them today.
The church, and we as church leaders, are facing an onslaught of “how-to” questions as we slowly emerge from the pandemic – how to re-start in person worship, how to re-engage members, how to grieve what has been lost in the past year, how to respond to realities of injustice. These questions are crucial. But as we face this new beginning may we never lose sight of the “why-to” that started it all: an empty tomb.