The Myrrhbearing Women and Mark the Great Storyteller

myrrhbearers31While the weeks after Pascha normally have daily Scripture readings from John’s Gospel, on this the 3rd Sunday after Pascha, the commemoration of the Myrrhbearing Women and Joseph of Arimathea, the Gospel Lesson is Mark 15:43-16:8.

One of the unusual aspects of the commemoration of the Myrrhbearing Women on this Sunday is that it is also one of several occasions in which the Orthodox Church openly celebrates diversity and divergence windingsheetin its own tradition.  On Holy Friday at Vespers there is the beautiful and touching commemoration from John 19 of Joseph and Nicodemus taking Christ’s body down from the cross and anointing it with “about a hundred pounds’ weight” of myrrh and aloes.   Two weeks after Pascha we commemorate in Mark 16 the women coming to anoint the body of Jesus because in Mark’s Gospel no anointing takes place before the burial.   Thus we have two traditions – two different memories of what happened at the burial of Christ – one from the Apostle John and the other form the Apostle Peter (for history tells us that the Evangelist Mark is not one of the Twelve, but was in fact a disciple of St. Peter).  Both traditions are not only accepted in the Church but liturgically celebrated.  It is worth our noting this variation in tradition or that two different traditions are accepted and glorified because too often today Orthodox demand a monolithic presentation of everything or anything in the Church.  Here we have the case of two different traditions both liturgically celebrated by the Church.  One doesn’t have to choose between the two traditions, nor form one homogenized version by explaining away the difference, for both versions are part of the Gospel truth!

In some ancient manuscripts, the Gospel of Mark ends at 16:8 with the women fleeing from the tomb but saying nothing to anyone about the resurrection out of abject fear.   Today some think Mark would not possibly have ended his Gospel at such an unusual ending.  It seems to me still possible that Mark intended to end the story there.  He is a masterful story teller.  At one point Mark has Jesus saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35).  It is a real invitation to all of those who hear the story to feel that Christ is speaking to us and declaring us to be His real family.   It is Mark’s way of being totally inclusive – all who listen to Christ as we are listening and all who do God’s will are made to be the brother, sister and mother of Jesus.

I mention this because I think Mark could have ended his Gospel with the women saying nothing to anyone as a story telling device.  For the question that goes begging is “if the women said nothing to anyone, how do we know of the resurrection?”   And the answer is “the story didn’t end there, it continued with the Acts of the Apostles, and the formation of the Church and with you and I hearing the Gospel.”

Biblical Scholar Craig Evans in HEARING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT writes:

“The Gospel of Mark was written and circulated during an uncertain and fearful time.  Christians had recently endured cruel persecution at the hands of Nero, at whose death the empire plunged into chaos during a time of war.  After three failed emperors, Vespasian ascended to the throne, hailed as the new ‘son of God,’ divinely empowered, able to heal.  Omens hinted at his coming; Jewish prophecy foretold it.  Surely in this man the Roman world would once again stabilize and benefit from the ‘good news,’ which has now begun.

Not so, say the evangelist Mark.  The good news begins with Jesus Christ, the true Son of God – the Son recognized by God himself at the baptism and later at the transfiguration, the divine Son who is fearfully recognized by the spirits, the Son who can heal great numbers of sufferers with a word or a touch.

The Markan Gospel spoke well to a particularly difficult and dangerous time…”

So Mark’s Gospel may have originally ended with the women too being afraid, just as the Christians of Mark’s day were afraid.   But Mark is saying the Gospel didn’t die under threat or because of fear for the Gospel is truly God’s Good News to the world. Mark may have concluded with the surprise ending of the women saying nothing to anyone, but we must not forget how he began his Gospel:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

People may be afraid to proclaim this truth or live by it, Mark says it is true nonetheless.  That Jesus is both Christ and God’s Son is Mark’s thesis and his gospel is the offered proof for this claim.  Though the disciples – men and women – may have failed Christ, they could not stop the Truth from being proclaimed for the message is God’s Word, not merely a human story.