The fresco “Women Visit the Empty Tomb” by Cristian Secchi in the Church of Santo Tommaso in Turin, Italy. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

Encountering Mystery: The Women at the Tomb

The ending of Mark’s Gospel has a great deal to teach us about encountering God

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Mark’s Gospel concludes with a large rock inexplicably moved, an empty tomb, a message of the good news proclaimed by an angel and women witnesses who are afraid and remain silent. The ending of Mark’s Gospel paints the triumphant news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in muted colors.

Saint Benedict as the father of Western monasticism and teacher
St. Benedict as the father of Western monasticism and teacher of the Church by Jan Polack (c. 1500). He reminds all to be mindful of God’s presence in our lives. AdobeStock

We may long for the bright, bold colors of uninhibited Easter joy, but if we are honest most of us will recognize that we do not live there. Instead, the muted colors of Mark’s ending form our familiar habitat. We live with the promise of the Resurrection, the beautiful, joyous, exuberant good news of Easter always before us, and yet so many of our experiences of life bring us to the graveyard, to a place of fear, emptiness, darkness, uncertainty and silence. Though unexpected and difficult to understand, the ending of Mark’s Gospel is familiar and has a great deal to teach us about encountering the mystery of God.

Mark’s Gospel was written for a community facing great uncertainty. The mixed community of Jews and gentiles faced persecution, war, the death of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and the destruction of the Temple.

Like the women who came to the tomb in the early morning following the Sabbath, the community knew about the fragility of life, about the struggle for faith in the face of suffering, about the vulnerability of hope and promises in the face of death. Perhaps in this year of a global pandemic we more easily relate to the feelings and fears of Mark’s community.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome approached the tomb with the heaviness that grief, shock and confusion brought. They moved toward that tomb carrying within them the upheaval of Jesus’ violent death, a death that ripped through their souls and overturned the ground on which they stood.

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THREE LESSONS

The ending of Mark’s Gospel holds three vital lessons for us. First, it shows us how to allow the poverty of our human condition to be the source of prayerfully encountering God. Second, it teaches us that everyone is invited to hear the good news of Easter. Third, it asks us to live out this good news in our everyday lives, to learn to glimpse eternity in the everyday moments of our lives.

— Patricia Sharbaugh, Ph.D.

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They approached the tomb with questions, including the practical question of who would move the large stone blocking them from the tomb and deeper questions about the mystery of Jesus’ death. What did the promises Jesus made about salvation and the coming of the kingdom of God mean now that he lay dead in a tomb? How could life come from this situation of death? And yet, they came to the tomb. Their questions did not stop them from faithfully attending to Jesus, from approaching the mystery they did not and could not understand. Despite their questions, with their questions, they came to the tomb. These women teach us how to attend to life, and to nurture life amid death even as we are overwhelmed with questions.

Faithful Attending

Faithful attending is a vital component of discipleship. The women who came to the tomb were women who followed Jesus. They heard his message in Galilee, believed it and followed him to Jerusalem, ministering to him along the way. They watched his death from a distance. They saw where he was buried. They waited through the Sabbath, observing the ritual of Sabbath worship and rest, and came to the tomb when the Sabbath had ended.

The angel at the tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The angel at the tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ. AdobeStock

Despite the emptiness, uncertainty and vulnerability the tomb of Jesus evoked, they continued to be faithful to Jesus, bringing spices to anoint his body, hoping to care for his body amid a death they had no control over and clearly did not understand.

We are asked to attend to life in this same way. Mystery encompasses our lives. We come from God and return to God. We are born and we die. We spend a lot of time between birth and death attending to things we can control and understand, but, ultimately, we know that we are born without being asked and we will die without being asked. Authentic faith does not allow the questions, the vulnerability, the uncertainty and the fragility of our lives to become obstacles preventing us from seeking God. Despite large, seemingly unmovable stones blocking us from ever understanding God, faith demands that we keep coming to the tomb, keep facing the uncertainty, keep attending to life amid death.

No place so marks out the vulnerability of our lives like a graveyard. In a graveyard, we stand at the threshold between life and death, at the very edge of our understanding, facing the mystery. Though most of us try to avoid thinking much about death — try to avoid the feelings of sadness, darkness, fear and uncertainty graveyards evoke — spiritual writers advise us to think daily about our death.

In a chapter of the Rule of Benedict, entitled “The Tools for Good Works,” St. Benedict writes: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be” (4:47-49).

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Why Does the List of Women Differ from One Gospel to Another?

• The naming of women present does not indicate that other women were not present.

• Women are often named by the Gospel writers for theological reasons — for example, Matthew names the mother of the sons of Zebedee rather than Salome to remind his community of an earlier story. The mother of the sons of Zebedee asked Jesus to give honor to her sons by asking them to sit on the right and left of Jesus. Jesus asked her a question, “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” (Mt 20:22). She answers in the affirmative and by naming her at the cross Matthew indicates her commitment to follow Jesus to the cross.

• Mary Magdalene is the only woman named in all four Gospels as a witness to the Crucifixion and the first to receive the good news of the Resurrection. For this reason, Augustine gave her the title the Apostle to the Apostles.

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Benedict’s admonition is not meant to lead us to despair and sadness, but to the purpose of our lives. Remembering our death is meant to awaken us to the presence of God in our lives every moment of every day. We become mindful of God’s presence, live more fully in imitation of God, receive more fully the gift of our lives, handing ourselves over to God each day. When we live this way, our death has continuity with our life, death becomes a purpose we live toward. When we die, we hand ourselves over to God wholly and completely.

Though thinking about our death awakens us to the mystery that encompasses our lives, to the purpose and goal of our lives, at the same time, death reminds us of our fragility, reminds us of our loneliness, separates us from the people we love most in the world. Death reminds us that the meaningful, faithful, loving lives we know will come to a place of profound unknowing.

We hope and expect the resurrection from the dead, but we hope for what we do not and cannot see. Graveyards tell the truth about the basic poverty inherent in our human condition, and standing by a tomb we feel the wilderness within us.

The muted colors of Mark’s ending tell the truth about the paradox evoked by the tomb. We have great faith and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. We believe that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has promised us that death does not have the last word in our lives. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have received the forgiveness of our sins and have been given new and eternal life.

But this good news comes to us through our poverty. We are asked to walk a path of poverty to more fully receive, more fully experience and more fully know the good news that awaits us at the tomb. We are asked to walk by faith and not by sight, on a path we do not see enough, a path that continually reminds us that we are not in control of our lives.

women at the tomb
The 14th-century fresco in the Monastery of St. Benedetto in Subiaco (Rome), Italy, shows the holy women (three Marys) and the angel in front of the empty sepulcher. Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images

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Poverty: Source of Our Prayer

Women are important witnesses to Jesus’ death. From the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus on the head proclaiming him the suffering Messiah, to the women who watch his crucifixion from a distance and come to the tomb, women, in contrast to the male disciples, are present at the events, but they do not understand and do not control what unfolds. The presence of women at these events is not surprising.

In the culture in which Jesus lived and in many places around the world today, women are excluded from the power structures of their societies. One result of this is that women often attend to the areas of life that we are least able to control and manipulate. Women are the primary witnesses of birth and death. Not necessarily the experts, women attend to the daily care of those being born and those dying. In societies where women are pushed to the margins of life, poverty, emptiness and anonymity become familiar terrain.

When the woman anoints Jesus on the head proclaiming him the suffering Messiah, he proclaims, “Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:9). And yet, we don’t know her name.

When the women who come to the empty tomb and receive the angel’s message of Easter joy, then tell their stories to the apostles, Luke tells us, “but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11).

Those who participate in historical Jesus research ascribe high probability to the historical accuracy of women as the first witnesses of the empty tomb and the first to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus based on the criteria of embarrassment. Because women had no legal standing and their testimony would not be believed, it would be foolish to try to secure the historical accuracy of the story using women as witnesses.

Accustomed to poverty and anonymity, the women who surround the death of Jesus do not look to escape from their condition. Their anonymity allows them to witness the Crucifixion, to walk to the empty tomb. They do not look for power or control of the events that are unfolding. They simply and quietly witness the life and death of Jesus. They attend. They watch. They come to the tomb. They weep, and through their actions, through their faithful attention to the emptiness and grief surrounding the death of Jesus, they are ushered into an encounter with mystery that leaves them in terror, amazement and silence. Their encounter with mystery does not result in answers to their questions, or clarity in their understanding of events, but it changes them forever and moves them from grief to wonder.

When we find ourselves in the darkness, we can remember the women at the tomb, we can follow their lead. We can step back from controlling and manipulating our lives to fit our vision of fulfillment and allow our confusion, sadness and pain to be the source of our prayer, to lead us to the tomb where God will remove the stone that separates us from his presence, where we are finally open enough to let the good news of the Gospel take root in us and grow, becoming the source of our deepest identity.

All Are Invited

These women disciples of Jesus come to the tomb hoping to attend to the dead body of Jesus not knowing how they will move the stone blocking them from entering. They clearly do not understand the events that have unfolded, yet love compels them to come. Though their understanding is imperfect, they are faithful and their imperfect faithfulness is enough. They are greeted amid their confusion by a stone already rolled away and an angel with an extraordinary message. The angel tells them that God has vindicated the message and the person of Jesus by raising him from the dead. The angel tells these women that they are to go to the disciples (Peter is mentioned by name) and share the good news.

There is a stark contrast between the momentous content of the angel’s message and the witnesses who receive it. The spice-bearing women do not have legal status to give testimony in court and yet have been entrusted with the most important message in history.

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Eternal Life and God’s Abundance

In a recent book, “The Living God and the Fullness of Life” (Westminster John Knox Press), Jürgen Moltmann links eternal life to the abundance of God visible in the everyday world around us. Moltmann says that when we think of eternal life merely as an extension of time in the future after our deaths, we miss its rich promise. Eternal life is not separate from our daily lives and preserved for after our death, but is breaking into life at every moment and available as we awaken to abundance.

He writes: “Eternal life is not endless life but life that is filled with God, life in abundance (Jn 10:10). Eternity is a divine qualification of human life, not its endless prolongation.”

After discussing the inbreaking of eternal life into the daily, Moltmann explores eternal life as a gift available to all but most fully recognized through faith.

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Furthermore, they are to share this message with Peter, who has promised and yet failed to be faithful to Jesus. This astounding life-giving message is for all, even the people society marginalizes and counts as unimportant, and sinners who have failed and turned away from God.

No one is excluded. The women may not have authority in the legal structures of their society, but the angel respects their authority. He gives them the message but then tells them to look, to certify for themselves that the tomb is empty. Furthermore, human limitations, limitations of misunderstanding and fear are not reasons for exclusion. Because of fear, Peter denied Jesus three times. Though his actions may seem to place him outside the circle of faithful disciples, by naming him the angel includes him in the inner circle of faithful disciples. Because of fear, the women say nothing to anyone, and yet the astounding message of the Gospel resounds throughout the world. God works with, but is not limited by, the weakness and failure of human beings.

Glimpses of Eternity

The good news of the Gospel is given and heard at the tomb. The depth of the message speaks to the profound poverty of our human condition, but we are not to remain at the tomb. The angel tells the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is not at the tomb, but is waiting for them in Galilee.

Easter
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In Mark’s Gospel, the tomb represents death, and Jerusalem is the place of opposition. Galilee is the home of the disciples and Jesus the place of ordinary life. The extraordinary message of eternal life is not reserved for the tombs in our lives but is to impact every aspect of every moment of our lives.

But it is not human faith that acquires eternal life. Eternal life is God-given and is present in every human life, but it is the believer who perceives it. One recognizes it objectively, and subjectively one absorbs it into one’s life as truth. Faith is joy in the divine fullness of life.

When our lives bring us to the graveyard, to places of fear, emptiness, darkness, uncertainty and silence, we may only be able to hear the good news of Easter in stifled tones, to see it through muted colors. Yet, the ending of Mark’s Gospel tells us that if we carry the news prayerfully into our ordinary lives, remind ourselves daily that we received our lives from God and will hand them back to God, and allow those reminders to shape the way we see our experience in the world, the stifled tones and muted colors of the angel’s proclamation at the empty tomb will gradually sharpen and brighten and we will awaken to the vivid, bright colors of life bursting through and filling all of our experiences with the presence of God.

Our fear will be converted to prayer, our uncertainty transformed into trust and our silence will become the refuge where the beautiful, joyous, exuberant good news of Easter breaks in upon us and lifts our hearts to God. 

PATRICIA SHARBAUGH, Ph.D., is associate professor of theology at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. She specializes in the field of biblical theology.

 
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