Readings: Easter Day

27 March 2015

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EASTER DAY

Acts 10.34-43; Psalm 118 1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; John 20.1-18 or Mark 16.1-18

Lord of all life and power, who through the mighty resurrection of your Son overcame the old order of sin and death to make all things new in him: grant that we, being dead to sin and alive to you in Jesus Christ, may reign with him in glory. Amen.

WHOEVER appended to Mark's Gospel a rapid synthesis of the final events recorded in the other three Gospels (Mark 16.9-18), must have been anxious to provide a properly conclusive rebuttal of the alternative - a resurrection story in which Jesus does not appear, and the principal witnesses are given a message which they do not pass on because they are afraid (Mark 16.8). There have been attempts, by defenders of the longer ending, to provide rational explanations. Might Mark have become ill, or been interrupted by a crisis, so that he could not continue to the ending he intended? That is to snatch at a comfortable solution. I am much more persuaded by the compelling reading of the literary critic Frank Kermode, whose book The Genesis of Secrecy defends the Gospel from the tidy-minded who would finish it neatly to match a story of Jesus which Mark is not telling.*

Later events, and other biblical writers, show that this story could, indeed, take care of itself. Word got round. Faithful believers in Jesus Christ crucified and risen were impressing the Roman occupiers in Judaea, so that the admirable centurion Cornelius set off in search of Peter (Acts 10.1-8). Paul, with Timothy and Silas (or Silvanus), proclaimed the good news in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15.1; 2 Corinthians 1.19; Acts 18.1-11). Those charged with preaching were powerfully affected by their own encounters with the resurrected Jesus. For Paul, it was the Damascus Road (1 Corinthians 15.8). Peter had experienced a vision that, by the time Cornelius's messengers arrived to find him (Acts 10.9-17), had transformed his views on mixing with Gentiles. His powerful summary of the grounds for faith in the resurrection of Jesus is given to a house full of Cornelius's Gentile friends and relations (Acts 10.34-43). This message, although revealed in a privileged way to a few among Jesus's Jewish followers, is for all - "the living and the dead" (Acts 10.40-42).

Yet that does not make it any less urgent to reckon with the visit to the tomb as Mark recounts it. The women have gone to the tomb, unsure who will help to roll the stone away (Mark 16.3). They arrive to find it not empty, but occupied by a young man in a white garment, who points out the place where Jesus had lain (Mark 16.5-6). They are then given a message to take back to the disciples, including Peter, who has been reaffirmed in a position of leadership after denying Jesus (Mark 14.66-72). Kermode describes this as "wholly counterintuitive" until we realise that "a good deal of Mark's story is concerned with failure to understand the story" (p. 69). That does not mean an absence of clues. If the characters are bewildered, the shape of this narrative has already provided the information that the young man confirms from inside the tomb. Jesus has been anointed in anticipation of his death (Mark 14.3-9), and has promised to go before his followers into Galilee (Mark 14.28).

Kermode raises other tantalising possibilities, connecting the young man not only with the young man (the same word in Greek) who fled through the garden, leaving his white linen garment behind, on the night of Jesus's arrest (Mark 14.51-52), but also with the Gerasene demoniac (pp. 142-143). The howling, injured, naked, tormented figure whom Jesus healed among tombs amazed the Decapolis by the tale of his healing (Mark 5. 1-20). The calm presence in a hallowed tomb amazes the women (Mark 16.8).

The language of amazement and misunderstanding pervades this Gospel, and it is easy to enjoy it as a narrative device that shows up the slowness of those who should have had eyes to see. In the end, though, the joke is on the readers, for we can do nothing but stand speechless before the empty tomb, looking for the assurances that we thought we could find, to confirm our sense of the world. Instead, the world has been turned upside down, because Jesus has done exactly what he said he was going to do.

Mark's Gospel ends, in the original Greek, with a preposition (gar - "for") as its final word. The English translation tries to shield us from the failure of speech to say what needs to be said, by tidying up this extraordinary grammatical solecism; but neither version can conceal the fact that the story is unfinished.

Meanwhile, for the next weeks, through to Pentecost, our worship gives us back the word that is almost pure ecstatic sound: Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed.

 

Frank Kermode The Genesis of Secrecy (Harvard University Press, 1979)

 

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