An Empty Tomb and the Angel’s Easter Orders

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading (Mark 16:1-8)

You may have noticed that I did not read the last two sentences of the Gospel reading, as printed in the lectionary insert. It was not an accident due to Holy Week exhaustion; I omitted them because they are not, in fact, part of the canonical Bible. The original version of Mark’s Gospel ended with the words, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end! Now, the early Church didn’t like this abrupt cliffhanger of an ending, and two different appendices were proposed in order to give the Gospel a more satisfying ending: the so-called “shorter ending,” consisting of the two sentences in the insert that I didn’t read; and the “longer ending,” consisting of verses 9 through 20, as found in modern printed Bibles. Very early on, you see, the Church had decided to go with the longer ending, and those two sentences tacked on to the end of verse 8 were scrapped. Unfortunately, an editor at Church Publishing Incorporated seems not to have gotten the memo!

With that out of the way, let’s look a little closer at the eight verses that I did read. We are told that three women got up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday to ready Jesus’ body for burial. He had been so hastily entombed that his body had not been washed and anointed with perfume, as was the custom. According to Jewish belief, the soul of the departed lingered for three days after death. So, they would have believed that Jesus’ spirit would have been aware of the fact that they were lovingly fulfilling their duty as members of his unofficial extended family.

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The women clearly put some thought into what they would need. The story mentions how they went out and bought aromatic spices in order to perfume the body. But they forgot one rather important fact: the tomb was sealed with a very large and very heavy stone. It is only as they are walking to the tomb that they remember this little detail. They don’t have a team of strong men with them. They don’t even have a crow bar. And the chances of success are pretty minimal. Now, reasonable people would have turned back at this point and rounded up a work crew. But the three women do not, in fact, turn back. They just keep going. Were they being foolish? Or did they just have faith?

When the three women get to the site of the tomb, they find that their worries had been for naught. The stone had already been rolled back. Now, at this point, you have to give them due credit for extreme valor. For they march right into the gaping maw of the tomb to find out what on earth is going on. What they find is a young man dressed in a white robe. We can only surmise that he is an angel. And he tells the women pretty much what all angels say when they first encounter a human, “Don’t be alarmed.” Yeah, right! He goes on to inform them that the tomb is empty, because God has raised Jesus from the dead. He commands them to tell Peter and the other disciples that the Risen Lord will wait for them in Galilee.” Presumably, the point is to start the next phase of Christian mission in the very place where the first phase all began.

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Now, here is where things get complicated. The women flee from the tomb in terror. Literally, the Greek text says that they flee trembling uncontrollably and out of their minds with fear. So much for the angel’s command, “Don’t be alarmed”! The last verse of the Gospel, as Mark originally wrote it, ends with “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

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Well, obviously, they said something to someone at some point in time, or we wouldn’t know the story at all! Hence, we get the Church’s decision to add an appendix to the Gospel—that, and the fact that the original version of this Gospel contained no Resurrection stories.

But the disturbing fact remains that Mark’s original version ends with the three women disobeying the explicit command of the angel. They do not carry the message to Peter and the disciples…at least not immediately. How long, I wonder, did it take for them to build up the courage necessary to go tell this improbable tale to Peter and the others? Hours? Days? Even longer? St. John’s account has Mary Magdalene running straight to Peter with the news. But St. Mark’s account hints that there was, in fact, a delay due to fear.

OK, but fear of what? If they were afraid of the angel, you would think that they would be quick to obey him. So it must have been something else. Perhaps they were afraid of being disbelieved, and even mocked, by the male disciples to whom they were sent. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine first-century men dismissing the bearers of the angel’s proclamation as “silly little women.” (Frankly, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine many twenty-first-century men disdainfully dismissing the testimony of their womenfolk.) If that was the cause of the women’s fear, it turns out to have been well founded. For Chapter 16, Verse 9 says that when Mary Magdalene eventually told the menfolk about the angel and the empty tomb, “they wouldn’t believe it.” (Men can be so stubborn!)

One final detail is worth further comment before I conclude. Note that the angel explicitly includes Peter as an addressee of the resurrection proclamation, despite the fact that Peter had quite recently denied Jesus three times. The clear implication is that Peter has already been forgiven his sinful betrayal and is still a beloved disciple.

So, here we are on this Sunday of the Resurrection without a real, honest-to-goodness resurrection story. Instead, what we are given are an empty tomb and the two Easter orders of the angel dressed in white. First, don’t let yourselves be overwhelmed by fear—not of angels and certainly not of mocking unbelief. Second, follow the Risen Lord Jesus to wherever he may lead you, proclaiming the Good News that sin and betrayal have been forgiven, death has been overthrown, and Christ is risen. Alleluia!

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© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

 

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