“An Unfinished Story”

On Friday, a friend who is a nurse texted. After a day of giving COVID vaccines, she would have a dose left over that needed to be used. Did I want it? The paperwork complete, I stood in her kitchen and the slim needle poked my arm. So quickly and quietly this momentous thing was done. I said, “thank you,” of course. I am profoundly grateful. Other than that, words seemed inadequate. Silence felt most appropriate—the silence of weighty grief and reverent amazement, the silence in which terror and trauma meets a tentative hope and a fragile joy. The silence that is full of processing, pondering, and prayer. In this silence are 2.7 million fellow Americans for whom this life-saving gift came too late. In this silence is the agony of those who have tended to our health and supplied our daily needs during this pandemic. In this silence is the brilliance of our scientists and the mystery of our immune systems. This silence holds an entire year—what a year—of chronic stress and exhausting uncertainty; a year of suffering through distance learning and rejoicing in a return to in-person school; a year of soul-searching and growth as a parent; a year of reckoning that has laid bare the sin of white supremacy and the urgency of repair.

This post-vaccine silence holds the pain of isolation together with the relief and excitement of gathering bodily again with loved ones and in community. In this silence, I seek a heart-space that is generous, patient, and brave enough to hold all we’ve been through and all that is to come.

This year, I find myself noticing the silence at heart of the Easter experience. Indeed, Mark’s resurrection account, and his entire Gospel ends with silence. “So [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.” In Greek, the ending is much more untidy. Mark’s sentence dangles, unfinished, down through the ages: “And no one anything they told,” “They were scared you see, for . . .”[1] And of course, if you take a look in your Bible, you’ll see that later interpreters could not tolerate this abrupt, unsettling non-conclusion. They felt compelled to add two more endings, one short and the other long, both very neat and tidy (and, if you ask me, dreadfully boring).

Over the ages, folks have wondered why Mark stopped here. My guess is, it’s probably what really happened. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were prepared to deal with the logistical puzzle of moving a heavy stone and the sorrowful yet familiar tasks of mourning. Instead, they find the tomb open and the body of their brutalized loved one missing. Imagine where their minds must have gone. It wasn’t enough to torture and kill him, the authorities, or some thrill-seekers, had to desecrate his body too. A strange young man in white tries to deliver a message from Jesus. The women turn and run; they say nothing to anyone. Given that they had just witnessed a lynching, this flight/freeze reaction makes total sense.

Obviously, the women must have eventually shared their experience of the empty tomb with someone, or we wouldn’t know about it today. However, I think Mark leaves the story hanging this way so that we, too, will enter into the silence of the empty tomb, will feel the terror and amazement and all the rest of the emotions of that startling moment. So that we will ask the questions and ponder the mysteries for ourselves, and, so that, eventually, we will find words and deeds to tell the still unfolding story of resurrection in our own lives. Mark wants to emphasize that his Gospel does not end with Jesus; it’s up to the reader to write the conclusion. In Mark’s account, the risen Jesus is noticeably absent. The women don’t see Jesus in the garden. They don’t hear his voice calling their names. Jesus doesn’t breathe on them; he doesn’t say, “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t feed them breakfast on the beach or allow them to touch his wounds. Mark’s messenger says: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” In Mark, Jesus is absent because we are his presence. The life Jesus lived continues to be alive in the community of his followers. God completes the story of resurrection in each one of us.

Mark’s messenger explains: Jesus had already told his followers that after his death and resurrection, he would meet them in Galilee. In other words, the disciples were to return to their home, to the ordinary place where, with Jesus, they had carried out an extraordinary ministry of healing, feeding, teaching, and liberating. Again and again, in Mark, Jesus “raises” the sick and suffering, the demon-possessed, the excluded and poor, just as Jesus himself was raised. Resurrection had already happened in Galilee, though the disciples hadn’t yet seen events in that light. And resurrection would continue, through the community shaped and guided by the spirit of the risen Jesus.

Theologian Harvey Cox interprets the resurrection of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew scriptures, saying:

[The stories of the dead being raised] did not spring up from a yearning for life after death, but from the conviction that ultimately a truly just God simply had to vindicate the victims of the callous and the powerful. To restore a dead person to life is to strike a blow at mortality . . . but to restore a crucified man is to strike a blow at the system that executed him.[2]

In other words, the ministry of raising people, in which Jesus calls us to participate is not simply an expression of charity, compassionate though it is. It is a profoundly political project. Jesus’ aims to set the world right, to dismantle systems of oppression and to rearrange society with divine justice.

Mark’s account was written seventy years after the events it describes. And the times in which Mark lived were tumultuous, like our times. Jesus’ followers faced intense persecution. A failed Jewish revolt against Rome brought chaos, death, and destruction. Which all makes me wonder: did Mark end so abruptly because he had to? Perhaps that last line: “and no one anything they told,” “They were scared you see, for . . .” reflects Mark’s own situation and state of mind as much as that of the women at the tomb. Who knows what might have happened to prompt Mark to hastily scribble that last dangling sentence before he jumped up from his chair and hid away his manuscript?

I think Mark’s unfinished story, and the silence that follows, is a profound gift to us this Easter. Silence has many dimensions and layers. There is the fearful, confused, exhausted silence of people who have no words for what they have lived through. There is the silence of amazement, a reverent silence that prepares us to receive something new, scary though it may be. The silence of the tomb is the silence of a seed germinating in the earth. This silence isn’t always quiet and somber. There is a sing-at-the-top-of-our-lungs and dance-with-our-whole body kind of joy that still carries within it this silence of the empty tomb. This generative silence of Easter opens a pathway to the sacred, cultivates a deep awareness of pain, beauty, and mystery even as we navigate our full lives in a busy world.

This Lent, I participated in a retreat called a month of praying scripture. As we gathered for our final group session, and tried to find words to tell each other what we had experienced in prayer over the month, my friend Kiely Todd Roska, one of our facilitators, contemplated the power of the silence in which we bear witness to each other’s stories. She wisely said, “We don’t always know what we want to say until we say it to another person.” That is how Mark invites us to experience God’s silence, the silence of the empty tomb, the silence of the risen one who goes ahead of us to Galilee. This silence is not a cold shoulder; it’s just the opposite. God’s silence is receptive, connected, and affirming. It is a sign that God is fully and generously present. In this companionable silence, let us learn to tell and live our own stories of resurrection. Let us allow God to listen us into new life. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor translation, 2006 sermon, “Practicing Resurrection”

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor 2006 sermon, “Practicing Resurrection”