As Easter comes round again, many wonder how to understand the resurrection of Jesus Christ and its message for us. His empty tomb can make believers hesitant and even mildly embarrassed. Are they being innocently orthodox or even naïvely realistic in accepting that several women found the tomb of Jesus open and empty on the first Easter day? Is the sign of the empty tomb so crudely physical that it has no place in an adult faith content to talk in more general terms of Jesus’ victory over death?
I wonder whether the real problem here is not with the historical case for the empty tomb but with its meaning. As such scholars as Raymond Brown, S.S., and others have shown, a reasonable argument can be mounted for the basic reliability of the empty tomb story. But the difficulty for many people may be with What does it mean? rather than with Did it happen? Until we appreciate the meaning of the empty tomb, merely historical arguments may seem somewhat fruitless and beside the point.
What might the empty tomb of Jesus reveal about God and the divine activity on our behalf? How could the empty tomb trigger and shape human faith? In proposing some answers to these large questions, let me limit myself to the oldest account of the empty tomb, Mk 16: 1-8.
At first glance, the spare eight verses that conclude Mark’s Gospel do not look promising for any reflections on the divine self-revelation and the response it evokes, human faith. But these laconic lines do in fact prove rich for those seeking to understand how God is made known in the whole story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. These verses report a pair of elements that persistently shape God’s self-manifestation: events (in this case, the divine action that has transformed the situation before the arrival of the three women) and words (the angelic proclamation). As the Second Vatican Council taught, revelation occurs sacramentally, through the interplay of words and deeds (Constitution on Divine Revelation, Nos. 2, 4, 14, 17).
Moreover, three contrasts are built into the story: darkness/light, absence/presence and silence/speech. They enhance the telling of the story.
In the first place, Mark’s text contrasts not only the nighttime darkness (between the Saturday and the Sunday of the resurrection) but also the darkness that enveloped the earth at the crucifixion (15:33) with the light of the sun, just risen when the women visit the tomb (16:2). The three women go to the tomb with light streaming into the sky and with something they never imagined about to be revealed: God has definitively overcome darkness and death.
A preliminary hint of what will be revealed comes when the women raise their eyes and see that the enormous stone, which blocked the entrance to the tomb and their access to the body of Jesus that they intend to anoint, has been rolled away (16:4). From the form of the verb, the so-called theological passive, the attentive reader knows that God, while not explicitly named, has brought about what is humanly impossibleopening the tomb and raising the dead to new life. The women see the first glimpse of what God has done in the unexpected reversal of the dark situation of death and the vindication of the dead Jesus. Without yet being aware of it, the women find themselves confronted with the first disclosure of God’s action in the resurrection.
A second contrast emerges once the women enter the tomb itself. The absence of Jesus’ body is set over against his personal presence, mediated through an interpreting angel in the form of a white-robed young man.
A third contrast pits the confident words of the heavenly figure (He has been raised. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.) against the silence of the women as they flee from the tomb. Its tripartite shape adds force to the announcement. The angel proclaims, first, the great truth that concerns everyone and will change the universe forever: He has been raised. Then he turns to the setting in which he is addressing the women: He is not here. Finally, he points to the specific spot in the tomb where the body of Jesus had been buried: See the place where they laid him. Both the words of the interpreting angel and the silent flight of the women highlight the dramatic and numinous moment of revelation.
Let us consider further some of the details. When the three women enter the tomb, they do not find the body of Jesus but a young man, dressed in a white robe, and sitting on the right (16:5). His shining apparel is the traditional dress of heavenly messengers. Like the Old Testament figures who remain seated to deliver a judgment, the angel does not rise to greet the women but speaks with authority to deliver an astonishing message. At the sight of the angel, the women respond by being greatly amazeda reaction that matches the normal biblical response to a theophany. After countering their startled reaction with a word of comfort (Do not be amazed) and revealing the resurrection, the angel commissions them: Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you into Galilee. There you will see him. But the women fled from the tomb. For trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Some commentators explain the silent flight of the three women as a disobedient failure. First the male disciples of Jesus failed, and now also the women prove to be disobedient failures. They break down and disobey the commission they have received from the angel. So Mark’s Gospel is alleged to close with total human collapse.
But is such an explanation rooted in Mark’s narrative? Does it miss something very important about divine revelation? Does it gloss over the difference between the track record of the male disciples from Chapters 6 to 15 and the women’s track record in Chapters 14, 15 and 16?
Beyond question, the conduct of male disciples of Jesus starts deteriorating from Mk 6:52, where the Evangelist states that they do not understand the feeding of the 5,000 and that their hearts are hardened. Their lack of faith leads Jesus himself to reproach them with their failure to understand and believe (8:14-21). A little later he reproaches Peter sharply for perpetuating Satan’s temptations by refusing to accept the destiny of suffering that awaits his master: Get behind me, Satan (8:31-33). James, John and the other male disciples soon prove just as thickheaded (9:32; 10:35-40). Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of his enemies. When their master is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, all the male disciples desert him (14:50). Peter creeps back and goes into the courtyard of the high priest while Jesus is being interrogated. But under pressure he twice denies being a follower of Jesus and then swears that he does not even know Jesus (14:66-72). No male disciple shows up at the crucifixion, and it is left to a devout outsider, Joseph of Arimathea, to give Jesus a dignified burial (15:42-47). The progressive failure of Jesus’ male disciplesand, in particular, of the core group of the Twelvebegins at Mark 6:52 and reaches its lowest point in the Passion story.
Meanwhile women have entered Mark’s narrative (14:3-9; 15:40-41, 47). They function faithfully, as the men should have done but failed to do. The women remain true to Jesus to the end, and are prepared to play their role in completing the burial rites. The women have followed Jesus and ministered to him in life and in death (15:41). Does then the frightened silence with which they react to the angel’s message express a sudden, unexpected collapse on their part? Those who endorse such a dismal explanation might reread Mark’s Gospel and notice how from the very start (1:22, 27) people over and over respond to what Jesus does and reveals with amazement, silence, fear and even terror (e.g. 4:40-41; 6:50-51). His teaching and miracles manifest the awesome mystery of God come personally among us.
In a detailed study, The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), Timothy Dwyer shows how wonder is a characteristic motif in Mark’s Gospel, occurring at least 32 times. Covering elements which express astonishment, fear, terror and amazement, it is the proper reaction of human beings to the awesome presence and power of God revealed in the teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Apropos of the three key terms in Mk 16:8flight, fear and silenceDwyer appeals to earlier passages in Mark and other relevant texts to conclude that the terms do not always bear negative connotations. Far from being always defective and the antithesis of faith, flight is a common response to confrontation with the supernatural. The reactions of trembling, astonishment and fear in Mk 16:8, as Dwyer shows, are consistent with reactions to divine interventions early in the Gospel, reactions that co-exist with faith.
As for silence, he illustrates how in biblical stories temporary silence can result from a divine encounter. The silence of the three women is best understood as provisional; in due time they will speak to the disciples. The women remained silent with inappropriate persons, until their message could be passed on to the appropriate audience, the disciples.
To sum up: It is with flight, trembling, astonishment, silence and fear that the women initially receive the angel’s message about God’s action in raising Jesus from the dead (16:6) and about Jesus’ appearance(s) to take place in Galilee (16:7). But these are proper reactions to the climax of divine revelation that has occurred in the resurrection. God’s action has transformed the whole situation. The women have experienced the death of Jesus and his burial; they expect to find a crucified corpse when they visit the tomb. Their intense response to the angel’s word matches the awesome power of God, now disclosed in the greatest divine act in the Gospel of Mark. God has triumphed over evil, the divine kingdom is breaking into the world, and the victimized Jesus is known to have been finally vindicated as the Son of God.
In Mark’s Gospel, the crucifixion and resurrection stand over against each other. But they also interpret and reveal each other and may never be separated. Mark exemplifies this mutual illumination through two juxtaposed statements which the interpreting angel makes to the three women: You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and He has been raised. To that message about the resurrection of the crucified one, the women react appropriately.
Read this way, Mark’s concluding eight verses yield a rich commentary on the divine self-revelation conveyed by the numinous wonder of the resurrection. The later Gospels of Luke and John were to fill out the picture of the divine revelation at the open and empty tomb by highlighting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They will press beyond the Easter revelation of the Father and the Son (found in Mark 16) to acknowledge the full, trinitarian disclosure of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But Mark’s empty-tomb narrative has already done its work by presenting, or at least hinting at, some major aspects of God’s revealing activity and the fitting human response. Yes, the discovery of the open and empty tomb did happen, and Mark takes us some distance in giving an account of what that means. In dramatically reversing the situation of Jesus’ death, God has transformed the human condition and led us into the light of a new day that will never end. It is only to be expected that the three women in Mark’s story react with hushed astonishment. There is a time to fall silent, as those friends of Gandalf do in The Lord of the Rings when the old wizard quite unexpectedly returns: Between wonder, joy and fear they stood and found no words to say.
With the holy women, we also need to pay silent homage to the awesome wonder of Christ’s resurrection from the dead: the beginning of God’s new creation.