Easter Sunday — March 31, 2024

The original end of Mark's Gospel is one full of questions and fear, writes Teri McDowell Ott. And that's ok. It’s not a fear without faith or hope.

Listen to Teri read her lectionary reflection here.

Mark 16:1-8
Year B

Natural light is a mood booster and good for my mental health, so I’ve added a quick walk outside to my morning routine. I wake up to my alarm on my cell phone but resist the urge to check email or social media or anything that involves a screen or artificial light. Instead, I pull on warm clothes, leash up the dog, and head outside for a few minutes of fresh morning air and whatever natural light I can turn my face towards. Sometimes it’s still the moonlight. Other times, if my schedule and daylight saving time allow, it’s the sun peeking over the horizon, casting hazy pink and orange streamers through the fading dark of night. As I take in this beauty, I ready myself for the work of the day: contemplating my tasks, writing deadlines and the people with whom I will meet. I set my intentions. More deeply, I consider who I want to be and how I want to be.

The reading from Mark’s Gospel for this Easter Sunday begins with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, setting out “very early” for the tomb, just as the sun had risen. I imagine their morning sun appearing just as it does for me, and these women turning their faces toward it, contemplating their somber work for the day – anointing the body of their beloved Jesus – and setting their intentions for how they would go about this sacred task.

No morning ritual could have prepared them, though, for what they found: an empty tomb; an otherworldly young man dressed in white; the admonition, “Do not be afraid.” But of course, they were afraid. According to Mark, all of Jesus’ disciples should be afraid. And originally, the story ended here, the women fleeing the tomb in “terror and amazement.”

In his book Preaching Mark in Two Voices (co-written with Gary Charles), Brian Blount reflects on the original ending of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:1-8) and why early church leaders felt the need to add to it (Mark 16:9-20). Mark’s focus, Blount writes, is not on resurrection but discipleship. Therefore, Mark doesn’t end with appearances of the resurrected Jesus or the convincing of other disciples and spreading the good news. Mark ends with the women’s fear. “Fear is the natural reaction to a discipleship whose content is the way of the cross,” Blount writes. “If you’re not afraid, you don’t understand.”

Mark stresses the call of discipleship and its challenges rather than resurrection appearances that displace fear and doubt with a happy, victorious ending. In his book Binding the Strong Man, Ched Myers refers to the extra verses of Mark 16:9-20 as “imperial rewrites,” a manufactured ending to make institutional Christians more comfortable and less afraid of the cost of discipleship.

Blount prefers Mark’s original conclusion, describing it as more like the “fade to black” ending of the movie than the “happily ever after.” It’s an ending that raises pressing questions, rather than providing tidy answers. This Easter morning, standing with the women at the empty tomb is the beginning of our discipleship journey, not the end. If we understand the work, then we, like the women at the tomb, will be afraid — full of both terror and amazement.

Easter morning is undoubtedly beautiful; a welcome note of hope after the devastation of the crucifixion on Good Friday. If the weather cooperates, this morning’s rising sun illuminates springtime flowers blooming and butterflies emerging from cocoons. Easter morning is a new beginning and Mark wants us to turn our faces toward the rising sunlight to set our intentions for the disciple work ahead. How will we be in the work that lies ahead? Who will we be?

The work that lies ahead is hard. The problems we face are complicated and overwhelming. But the fear we feel on Easter morning is not a fear that can’t be overcome. It’s not a fear without faith or hope. It’s also not a fear without a guide and Savior in Jesus Christ. Rather, the fear of Easter motivates us to, as Blount writes, “stop looking for happy endings, and, living a life of discipleship, start creating them.”

Questions for reflection

  1. What emotions does Mark’s Easter story stir in you?
  2. Which ending of Mark do you prefer? Mark’s original ending or the added verses? Why?
  3. What intentions for your life of Christian discipleship can you set for yourself today and for your church?

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