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Mark and mystery.

In 1983 Robert H. Smith wrote a book on the Resurrection Gospels, (1) summarizing decades and even centuries of research and offering a solid basis for understanding those key texts of Christian faith. The book has withstood the ravages of time very well indeed. My present purpose is to look back at that book and its content, as regards the ending of Mark, and to reflect on its conclusions in light of some recent work in theology, and particularly mystical theology.

Easter Gospels was itself a reflective view of the biblical material, sacrificing nothing in historical-critical acuity but keeping the faith character of the Gospels always to the fore. Before examining the text of Mark's ending, Smith considered the context in which and to which the Gospel was written--the situation of Christians in persecution, whether in Palestine or in Rome, of in some other place(s). He concluded that Mark's Gospel is "a fresh and profound interpretation of the Christian tradition, emphasizing the parallels between [first-century Christians'] own experience and that of Jesus. In his portrait of Jesus, Mark emphasizes both Jesus' sonship and his forsakenness." (2) It is that dual focus in Mark that has so profoundly interested most readers, and this is a point to which I will return.

The notoriously contested "original ending" of Mark is here defended not merely as authentic but as "a dramatic and kerygmatic asset." Smith finds that the Gospel concludes both "hopefully and mysteriously." (3) The women's silence at the end has dramatic effect, but it also points beyond itself: Smith interprets it as meaning that the women ran straight to witness to the disciples without speaking to anyone on the way, just as the healed man in 1:44 is instructed to "say nothing to anyone" before showing himself to the priest--at which time he would most certainly have spoken. So here, the women will neglect even the social obligation to greet those they encounter on the way, intent on their sole purpose: to carry out the angelic command to go and tell the disciples of Jesus' resurrection and his promised meeting with them in Galilee.

One cannot exactly say that this solution, though plausible and well grounded, has been accepted by subsequent scholars. The nature of Mark's ending remains controverted, and a good many writers are content simply to leave it open--maybe this, maybe that; take your pick. The early church solution--adding bits to make the story come out "right"--has not lost its popularity; thus Ben Witherington writes in a commentary for preaching that "even if Mark 16:8 is the original final verse of this Gospel (which I doubt), it can be understood as follows...." (4) He continues with a version of the thesis of temporary silence, namely that "[d]uring the period of time that terror and fear engulfed them, they fled, and while they were afraid, they said nothing to anyone. This does not preclude their having spoken to someone eventually, nor does it preclude their having seen Jesus after visiting the empty tomb...." (5)

Others are less sanguine about the happy issue of this episode. Joanna Dewey, for example, reads Mark with a feminist focus that reveals the major role of women disciples and women characters in the story, but she finds that the ending, as narrated, still portrays the women disciples as having failed, just as their male counterparts did. "They flee in astonishment and amazement. Their fear is an appropriate response to the power of God experienced in the empty grave and the encounter with the man in white. But saying nothing is not appropriate." (6) This, she finds, is in keeping with Markan irony, and she concludes that the "happy end" in this case is the news that "failure need not be the end of discipleship.... The audience is reassured that they may fail, turn again, and continue following Jesus. Mark's message may even be that human failure is the beginning of true discipleship...." (7) This counters the position of some earlier churchmen that Mark introduces the women as witnesses precisely in order to underscore the failure of the men, and even that the role of apostleship is temporarily stripped from the men and given to the women. (8)

Clearly, the unease persists. Smith's solution is in some ways satisfying, yet it does not entirely hold. Smith himself writes eloquently, throughout his essay in Easter Gospels, of the paradoxical elements in this Gospel, of the sense of a brooding cloud and the question whether this is indeed "the good news of Jesus Christ." (9) Let me now, in response, say a few words on the structural clues to Mark's intention in relation to the character of the events he attempts to describe and about the theological response that may be appropriate to his intent.

It is a notorious and accepted fact that Mark writes in "sandwiches." He habitually begins a story, breaks off to tell of another incident, then returns to conclude the first story. The sandwiching of the raising of Jairus's daughter with the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage in chapter 5 is the parade example. Some even suggest that the entire Gospel is such an intercalation--that "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" must be read as the opening of a giant Klammer that closes only with the angel's words at the tomb, or even with the women's silence, since readers are thrown back to that beginning to understand with new eyes, and to enact, the meaning contained between the two.

Rhetorically speaking, one powerful effect of this technique is to achieve an impression of simultaneity. Two events are happening at the same time; we switch from one to the other and back again, holding both in motion, in tension. While the hemorrhaging woman is being healed, the little girl is dying, and the test of the action is transformed by the tension between the two needs. Something similar may be occurring in the Easter pericope. There are, in fact, two action scenes here, one within the other: in the "outer" story (16:1-4, 8b-d), the women approach the tomb, concerned about how to roll away the stone. The size of the stone is emphasized. When the women see that it has been rolled away, despite its size, they are seized with terror; they flee in silence, unable to account for what they have seen. In the middle of this story is a second (16:5-8a): the women, finding the tomb open, enter and are greeted by the heavenly messenger who instructs them that Jesus is risen and gives them the commission: "Go, tell."

To understand that these are discrete elements, not necessarily part of the same narrative, we need only look at the way they have been rearranged or eliminated by the other evangelists. Matthew begins in much the same way, but the women's concern about the stone is not stated, and in fact the need for it is eliminated, because the removal is dramatized, apparently before the women's gaze. Although the angel (now outside the tomb) invites them to "come, see the place where he lay" (Matt 28:6), they are not said to enter the tomb at all. They run away with "fear and great joy" (28:8) to tell the disciples; on the way they encounter the risen Jesus. Luke's women are first perplexed by the emptiness of the tomb, then terrified by the heavenly messengers, but they are calmed by being adjured to "remember," and they proceed without apparent haste (and without an appearance of the Risen Lord) to relate what they have seen to the other disciples (who do not believe them).

The element of fear or amazement is a constant, but it seems more overpowering in Mark than in Matthew of Luke. It is surely a measure of our distance, not only from that social world, not only from that world of imagery, but indeed from much sensitivity to the nonfactual that we find this fear at best puzzling, at worst inexplicable. Is this not, after all, good news, that Jesus has been raised, vindicated, seated at the right hand of God? Why does Smith write of this moment of confrontation with that reality: "Terrible depths underlie it and an aura of mystery surrounds it"? (10)

There is a parallel between Mark 16:8 and the Transfiguration scene in 9:5-6. In both cases, when confronted with a manifestation of the divine--and one that points to a brutal interruption in the "normal course of events"--the humans involved are both terrified and struck speechless. After the earlier scene Peter, James, and John are instructed not to tell; here the women are (in the internal scene) instructed to "go, tell." But in both cases speech is effectively impeded by fear.

What do you say when the end of the world is announced? What would you say?

What these disciples are looking at in both those scenes, so it must seem to them, is the end of all things, the "eschatological future" in theological terms. In the Transfiguration scene the disciples see Jesus conversing with Elijah, whose return heralds the end. In the tomb scene the women disciples are told that Jesus has been raised. The resurrection of the dead, as has so often been pointed out, was not an entirely unfamiliar concept for first-century Jews, but it was always associated with the end of the ages. If Jesus has been raised, then it must mean that the end has come. What do you say when the end of the world is announced? What would you say? (I try to imagine the ubiquitous reporter sticking a microphone in my face and asking "How do you feel about that?")

In our own age we have lost hold on the eschatological, in spite of the wild popularity of the Left Behind series and the like. The element of discontinuity, real, ontological discontinuity, seems beyond our perception--well, it would be, but we seem lacking even the ability to gasp at the possibility of such a discontinuity. It is, I think, this banalization of our hope that turned Jacques Pohier against the doctrine of resurrection. In his poignant book Quand je dis Dieu and its even more searing sequel, Dieu fractures (God--in Fragments), (11) he pointed out that we use resurrection as a convenient excuse for degrading and devaluing the real lives we live here and now, promising "pie in the sky when you die," as the Wobblies sang. This would be impossible if we approached it as the kind of meta-event that does, in fact, bring an end to all things as we have heretofore conceived them--but would we then be reduced to silence?

There is, then, a perfectly plausible way of accounting, in psychological terms, for the women's terrified silence. What words shall we use to speak the unspeakable? At the same time, the command to "go, tell" appears to demand a different response to the same reality. The interlocked scenes seem to make simultaneous but conflicting demands, or they may represent alternatives that are not simultaneous but sequential: now this, later that, Both Smith and Witherington have adopted versions of the sequential interpretation: first silence, then speech. This conundrum is part of the tantalizing ambiguity of Mark that we need to ponder, and to which we may find different answers at different times in our own lives.

Theologically, mystically speaking this may be the polarity of the apophatic and the kataphatic. I speak here of polarity, but I would want to deny polarization, the radical disassociation of the two poles. Here I am indebted to Archbishop Rowan Williams, who in his essay "Against Anxiety, Beyond Triumphalism," (12) challenges "the dichotomy between 'negative' and 'positive' in spirituality." In an analysis of Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross, and in a challenge to what he sees as the overoptimistic views of "creation spirituality," Williams affirms that a stripping and questioning, a descent into silence, is the necessary condition of an emergence into effective speech, into mission. (13) In terms of Mark's final chapter, we may say that the women's silence is the necessary precondition for speech, for proclamation.

Rowan Williams has also written about the ending of Mark in his 2000 Lenten lectures, published as Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment. (14) He reflects that Mark leaves us with the women's terrified silence, leaves us to make what we will of it: "Once again, he invites us to consider what difference the resurrection makes. Is it a reversal of tragedy? A happy ending? A promise of revenge against the sinful judges who brought Jesus to his death? It is none of these. The resurrection comes across as radically unexpected, almost disconnected with what has gone before.... As has sometimes been said, the reader is the 'lost ending' of Mark. We have to discover for ourselves what difference is made by this life, this death and this disorienting mystery after the crucifixion." (15) That discovery requires patience, the willingness to allow Mark to say and not say what he will (or will not). It requires that we be patient with ambiguity, until the time when it reveals itself as mystery. Until then is silence.

(1) Robert H. Smith, Easter Gospels: The Resurrection of Jesus According to the Four Evangelists (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983).

(2) Smith, Easter Gospels, 22.

(3) Smith, Easter Gospels, 29.

(4) Ben Witherington III, "The Season of Easter," in New Proclamation Year B, 2003: Easter through Pentecost (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 8.

(5) Witherington, "The Season of Easter," 8. See also Witherington's The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

(6) Joanna Dewey, "The Gospel of Mark," in Searching the Scriptures. Volume 2: A Feminist Commentary, ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 506.

(7) Dewey, "The Gospel of Mark," 507.

(8) See Joachim Gnilka, Das Evangelium Nach Markus (Mk 8,27-16,20). EKK II/2 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1979): 347, with reference to Theophylact and Calvin.

(9) Smith, Easter Gospels, 17.

(10) Smith, Easter Gospels, 41.

(11) Jacques Pohier, Quandje dis Dieu (Paris: Seuil, 1977); idem, Dieu fractures (Paris: Seuil, 1985) [English: God In Fragments, trans. John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1985)].

(12) Rowan Williams, "Against Anxiety, Beyond Triumphalism," in idem., A Ray of Darkness (Cambridge and Boston, Mass.: Cowley, 1995), 233-14. This essay was originally delivered as a lecture at Berkeley Divinity School, Yale University, in 1991.

(13) Rowan Williams, "Against Anxiety, Beyond Triumphalism," 240-41.

(14) Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment (London: HarperCollins, 2000; new ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).

(15) Williams, Christ on Trial, 16-17.

Linda Maloney

Academic Editor, Liturgical Press

Collegeville, Minnesota
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Author:Maloney, Linda
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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