In Mark’s account, Jesus is killed on the day of preparation for the Sabbath. This meant that the women who watched his crucifixion from a distance didn’t go to the tomb until after the Sabbath. But very early on the day after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to anoint Jesus’ body.
They go expecting to find the tomb intact. They are worried about how to remove the large stone from the entrance; they expect to find a body within it. But why do they expect these things?
The women have been, by far, the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples in this story. Although Mark’s audience is not introduced to Jesus’ female followers (Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses) until chapter 15, we are< informed that they and "many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem" (15:41). Unlike Jesus' male companions, they are with him at the crucifixion. They are at a distance, to be sure, but they are there and they return to honor the body. However, they are—surprisingly—surprised that the large stone has been rolled back and that Jesus' body is gone.
Why shouldn’t they be surprised?
As Mark’s readers know, Jesus repeatedly told the disciples that he would go to Jerusalem, be betrayed, suffer, be killed, and be resurrected by God. In the journey to Jerusalem in chapters 8–10, Jesus laid out the whole plotline, even though the disciples did not want to hear about it. But Jesus wouldn’t drop it; he talked about it in parable form (12:1–12), mentioned it when the unknown woman anointed him (14:8), and instructed the disciples to meet him in Galilee after they desert him and he is raised (14:28).
So, this unexpectedly empty tomb should, in fact, be expected. We identify with the women because surprise seems so natural. We do not expect dead bodies to be resurrected. Mark’s readers, however, are supposed to do more than the women, who fled in terror and told no one about their experience.
The earliest manuscripts of Mark end this way: “So they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This ending seems at first abrupt and unsettling. Nonetheless it can encourage fruitful theological reflection. Instead of narrating an encounter between the disciples and Jesus in Galilee, the shorter ending seems to be showing that the disciples already knew everything they needed in order to do what they should.
Mark’s readers also have enough information. We don’t actually have to see Jesus to have confirmation of God’s power and the truth of Jesus’ teaching. The story of the women gets out, so they must have eventually talked. The early church embraced Jesus’ resurrection as a given.
The narrative is open in the sense that it is invitational. How will we respond? One option is to run away in silence. Another is to proclaim what we believe even if we have not seen it. This stark ending of Mark pointedly puts the choice to readers: What will you do?
- Why do you think the women were afraid to tell what they had seen and heard at the tomb?
- What keeps us from sharing Jesus’ story today?
- Who needs the good news of the resurrected Christ in your community?
Risen Lord, thank you for the new life you bring to all of creation. Fill me with courage and joy as I share your good news with others. Amen.
This Bible study come from Shine: Living in God’s Light, the Sunday school curriculum published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia. The illustration, by David Huth, comes from All of Us: God’s Story for You and Me.