“They were afraid.” Those are the last words of Mark — the earliest, the oldest, of the four Gospels. Mark ends his story of Jesus with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome at the empty tomb, bewildered. There are alarmed, seized with terror, so they flee in shocked silence. The end. What kind of Easter is this?
Scribes and theologians thought the same thing, so they added different endings later on, a couple centuries later — easier endings, with Jesus coming back, in the flesh, to offer further teachings.
But that’s not how the manuscript ends. That’s not how Mark ends his story. There is no resolution, for Mark, no answers, no happy ending — instead, three women, afraid, and an empty tomb, emptied of Jesus, an empty tomb full of bewildering darkness, no solutions, only more questions.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but lots of the songs we sing during Holy Week are full of questions. I flipped around in my hymnal yesterday, trying to find songs with questions. There are a few scattered here and there, but most of them are in section on Jesus’ suffering and death, and a couple are among the resurrection hymns. I wasn’t very thorough, in my investigation; that’s a job for Tom.
I got interested in finding songs with questions in them because we sang a song last Sunday, and there was a question in it, and it’s been stuck in my head all week, as I’ve been thinking about Easter, about death and resurrection. “O sacred head, now wounded” is the song, and the question in it is, “What language shall I borrow?”
That’s the question I hear again in this Easter story this year, as the friends of Jesus gather at the empty tomb, and then flee, speechless. “They said nothing to any one,” it says, “for they were afraid.”
What language shall we borrow, to speak of something we don’t understand, something that the people at the tomb didn’t understand?
There’s a troubled silence in the story, wordlessness at the empty tomb. It says that the women were traumatized—tromos, in the Greek. They were traumatized by the events of the week, the arrest in the garden, his torture and trial, and finally his execution. When all the other disciples had abandoned Jesus, these three women stayed with him, at the cross, refusing to leave Jesus alone. They were the only friends who stayed, who heard his last breath, who were with Jesus until the end. And they noticed that Jesus didn’t have a proper burial, that no one anointed him with spices, as was the custom, when he was wrapped in linen and put in the tomb. So they went to the burial site, to do what needed to be done — they were the ones committed to Jesus until the very end, even after the end, in their care for his corpse.
This story is about death, the effect of death on our lives. And Mark won’t let us get away with any easy answers, any cheap reassurances. Remember how the story ends — this is verse 8, again “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and bewilderment had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”
It’s an unsettling ending to the story — unsettling, because there’s no place to rest, there’s no place to stand, there’s no time to contemplate the meaning of these things: of his death, of their lives without him, and now, the meaning of the empty tomb.
We want answers. We want resolutions. We want to be certain. Instead we have an empty tomb.
There’s a saying: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except for death and taxes” — that’s what Benjamin Franklin said. But now, with the empty tomb, we can’t even be certain about death—about what it means to die, for us to die, for loved ones to die. What does it mean to live without the pain of death? What does that feel like?
The empty tomb, resurrection, Easter — this is not a final answer to all our questions about God, about life, about death. The resurrection is not an answer, but a final question: What happens now? What do we say now? What language can we borrow, to say what needs to be said, about our lives, about this world, about this Jesus?
The women go to the tomb early Sunday morning to do all they can do for a sense of closure, to do all that needs to be done, to do right by Jesus, to anoint his corpse — something that should have been done at his burial, but was left undone. They would finish what needed to be finished, to bring the life of Jesus to a proper ending, a respectable burial — to close that chapter in their lives, or to try to close the chapter.
But, the tomb is empty, and they are told to go on a trip, to go to Galilee, to return to the place where the story started, to the place where their life with Jesus began. This is an ending without an end, a story without closure. The end of Mark’s Gospel returns the disciples, and us, back to the beginning of the story — to Galilee, where Jesus was born, where he was baptized, where he gathered his disciples, where he healed the sick and fed the hungry, where he proclaimed the good news.
The end takes us back to the beginning. The story is unfinished, because it’s an invitation for us to follow the three women — to follow them as they follow Jesus. And, when we look at their lives, we find some relief for our own, as we think about what it means to search for Jesus, because the women, these three disciples, the first ones to hear the good news of Easter — they are bewildered and afraid, they are unsettled and flee, they are speechless, unsure of what words to borrow, to say what needs to be said, to understand what is happening to them and to their world. And that’s where we are — that’s where I am, sometimes, and so are you.
Easter this year, in Mark’s Gospel, feels less like a word of comfort, and more like a question — a question to guide the rest of our lives, because we keep on working out an answer, or at least enough of an answer for now, for this year, for this season of our lives, in our world.
But there is a word of comfort for us in the story, even if Easter doesn’t answer all our questions or resolve all our problems. We hear a word of comfort from the messenger at the tomb, who tells the women: “he [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (v. 7).
That’s the good news — that Jesus is going ahead of us, that Jesus is always ahead of us, preparing a place for us, gathering our friends, his disciples, his companions, the people he loves.
Jesus has gone ahead of us, to prepare communion, fellowship, a reunion — that’s the gospel we believe when we come together at the Lord’s Table, this promise that Jesus has gone ahead of us, to prepare a meal, a potluck, Communion, to bring us into eternal fellowship with all the saints, with all our sisters and brothers: yesterday, today, and forever.
Jesus is going ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you. That’s the invitation of Easter, as Salome, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, return to Galilee to be with Jesus and all the other disciples, people like us, weak and fearful, bewildered by a world we can’t control, by our unexpected lives — yet here we are, being gathered together, being drawn into fellowship with a God we don’t yet understand.
What language can we borrow, to talk about Easter? We are like the women at the empty tomb, speechless, without answers. In the face of all that has happened, in our lives, in our world, this year — there are no words. There is nothing to say. We don’t know what to say, but we do know what to do. We come together, at the Lord’s Table, as the body of Christ, as we offer each other the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the peace of Jesus.
When we don’t have the words, we offer each other the body of Christ — with our hands, and with our lives.
The empty tomb is not the end of the story. It’s a beginning. Easter is not an answer. It’s an invitation, an invitation to go on, to Galilee—to go on, to our homes, to our neighborhoods, because Jesus has gone ahead of us.