Saturday, January 28, 2006

St Mark and the Resurrection

What happened immediately after Jesus rose from the dead? If we had only St Mark’s account, we might be left scratching our heads and longing for some more detail (which is ironic, since St Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ miracles are usually more detailed than the other evangelists’). We’re not even quite sure where his account ends.

Mark’s Gospel has about four or five endings, two of which the Church has accepted as canonical, that is, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Those are the two found in just about all Bibles: Mark 16:1-8 and 9-20. These are quite probably not written by the same hand. In the first ending, we find a narrative that includes most of the basic details: the myrrh-bearing women, the empty tomb, the angel and his announcement. In the second we have a kind of summary of various accounts, with some material not found in the other Gospels (e.g. believers in Christ will be able to handle serpents or drink poison without harm). Other endings are found in some manuscripts, but not enough to consider them as reliable variants or inspired additions to the main body of the Gospel.

I’m not going to do an exegetical commentary here, but rather will just wonder out loud a bit. Probably the Gospel originally ended with 16:8, though perhaps a longer ending got lost really early and is no longer extant. I think the early Church just couldn’t accept the anti-climactic (to say the least!) end of the Gospel. After the long and edifying narrative of the wonder-working Son of God, who died as a ransom for our sins and who gloriously rose from the dead, and after being treated to the angelic witness to this resurrection and the joyous command to proclaim the Good News, we read this: the women “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The End.

Wait a minute, cried the first Christians, it can’t end like that, for it didn’t end like that. The women eventually did tell the apostles, and the apostles told the world! So they searched the tradition for other accounts that would give a more complete and hence more satisfying conclusion to the holy Gospel according to St Mark. The account that was accepted as canonical by the Church seems to focus on the initial unbelief of the disciples—since they didn’t believe the several people who had told them they saw the risen Lord—until Jesus Himself appeared to them, upbraided them for their unbelief, gave a parting exhortation, and ascended to heaven. This longer account ends with the disciples preaching the Gospel everywhere, with signs and wonders. A much better ending!

One of the endings of St Mark’s Gospel that didn’t make the canonical cut is one I find rather fascinating. It is found in a few manuscripts just after verse 14 (where Jesus reproached the disciples for not believing). This version has the disciples basically saying the devil made them do it! Let’s look at it: “And they excused themselves, saying: ‘This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits. Therefore, reveal your righteousness now’—thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them: ‘The term of years for Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven.’”

Though it is not canonical Scripture, there is a good lesson in there. First of all, don’t give the devil more credit than he deserves. To excuse one’s failings by saying that the world is under satan—who does not allow God’s power and truth to prevail over unclean things (give me a break!)—is a cop-out of the worst kind, even though things may feel that way sometimes. It is not for the devil to allow God’s truth and power to prevail or not, try though he might to distort or hide it from us. The devil can’t allow anything, for all is in God’s hands, and we are still free. So we have no excuse for our sin, if we think it’s because someone has not allowed God to prevail in our lives. We ourselves choose to reject or accept God’s truth, which is knowable to all who seek it, the devil’s efforts notwithstanding. The Lord’s response is quick and to the point: return to the truth and sin no more, for incorruptible glory awaits those who do so.

So, as we wonder at the mosaic of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, let us also learn something from those curious little appendages, for all things work for the good for those who love the Lord.