Good Friday Reflections – 5 The Empty Tomb

Mark 16.1-8

Talk by Mother Anne-Marie

The Empty Tomb

If you have been here since 12 noon, you will know that in the four previous talks, as well as looking at some interesting points in the gospel texts, we have focused on certain disciples or sympathizers of Jesus. We have looked at the Palm Sunday crowd, at Judas Iscariot, at Peter, at Simon of Cyrene and the Centurion. So far we have been very male orientated, even though the Palm Sunday crowd would have had women in it.

Although in the Crucifixion talk we focused on two of the male characters, it is at the Cross and then at the empty tomb that the women move centre stage. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels, it is only the women who stand and watch Jesus on the cross from a distance. In Luke it is all Jesus’ acquaintances, including the women, who watch from afar. In John’s unique account, the women include Jesus’ mother, and are not at a distance, but at the foot of the cross, and have with them, of course, the beloved disciple. Although the accounts do differ, it is clear that it was predominantly the women disciples who did not run away and stayed with Jesus to the end. When it comes to the Empty Tomb, again the women are central to the events. I chose to read the Markan account of the empty tomb, because there is only an empty tomb and no resurrection appearance; and also because it is the one account that leaves us uncertain, which seemed to me an interesting place to be on Good Friday. We can have our certainties at our services on Easter Sunday.

In Mark’s gospel it is Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome who go to the tomb. They go with spices to anoint the body, so they are clearly expecting the body to be there. When they arrive the stone, which they were worried about moving, has already been rolled away. They enter the tomb and both see, and are spoken to by, a man in white (we assume an angel) and they are told by him that Jesus has been raised and they are shown the place where his body lay. The tomb is empty but they don’t see Jesus. They are told to take the message to Peter and the other disciples, and they leave the empty tomb in astonishment and say nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. And this is where Mark’s gospel ends, on this note of fear and secrecy.

Now this has been a huge puzzle for centuries. So much so that very early in Christian history, other people wrote endings for Mark’s gospel. Other works have had this issue. Mozart’s requiem was finished by Süssmayr, and subsequently others. Charles Dickens’s ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, was only half complete at his death and no one knew who the murderer was. Despite thatthe book was still made into a film and a musical, with the latter having the unusual concept of the audience voting for who they think is the murderer. With Mark’s gospel we do not know if he intended it to end like this or not, but if you open a modern translation you will usually find a shorter ending and a longer ending of Mark, and a footnote saying neither of these are thought to be written by Mark but are found in different early manuscripts. In Greek because of grammatical construction the last sentence of the Gospel is literally two words which say “they were afraid for”. Even more abrupt.

Paula Gooder thinks this is where Mark intended the gospel to finish and she invites us to see ourselves as part of the narrative. She thinks Mark always had an eye on his readers. He has three main groups of characters – the Jewish leaders, the crowd and the disciples, but she says as you get near the end of his gospel you realise there has always been one other group of characters, those of us who are reading it. We make a fourth unseen group and Mark is talking to us throughout the gospel. The question he is asking us, is will we behave like the Jewish leaders, the crowd, the disciples, or differently from all of those? Can we break out of our expectations, our set ideas, and our distractions, for long enough to recognise who Jesus was and is, and to respond to him.

So we, whether we are women or men, are the women at the empty tomb. We see the stone rolled away and we hear what the angel says. What do we believe? We are the women at the tomb. Of course we are astonished and afraid, but the angel tells us “to go, tell”. The question is, whether we will run away for good, run away and return later, or whether we might respond immediately (one of Mark’s favourite words) and run to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.