Heads Swimming, Shaking All Over (Mark 16:7-8)
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Newspapers in Chicago were surprised when Harry Truman won the presidency in 1948. So certain were the editors of Thomas Dewey’s election that they printed the headlines, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” How many here remember Thomas Dewey’s presidency?
One Christmas in the mid 1970’s my grandmother was hit with a good, but shocking surprise. A mother of seven, her third son, my uncle Jim, took off from Michigan on his motorcycle, heading out to see the country. Those were pre-cell phone days and my Meme had no idea where her son was. In late December, her daughter, my Aunt Jane, screamed at night when she saw a face in the window, staring into the house. Her pranking older brother Jim, unannounced, had returned home. Once they were over the shock, they were happy to have him back.
On September 11, 2001, our country awoke to a most unexpected and unhappy surprise. The terrorist attacks have fixed that day in our collective consciousness. On September 10, I did not have and in deed none of us had any idea that the rest of our lives we’d remember 9-11.
Surprises are part of life. Basketball fans know each March some small school will upset one of the big boys in the tournament, like Lehigh beating Duke last year. But, I don’t know when in life I have been so surprised that what happened really knocked me off my rocker. With things like 9-11 being exceptions, usually, I enjoy surprises. The ordinary can become humdrum.
On the day that we read about in the Gospels, women approached the tomb of Jesus and they had very definite expectations. Their grief was overwhelming. They had the distinct misfortune of having watched Jesus die a slow, painful death. They loved him. These women had been his most faithful followers in the darkest of hours.
We think of disciples and we think of 12 men. Many would not even count the women as disciples. In writing the gospels, the authors were uncertain about the names of all the women or how many there were. They are given prominence in the story, but even where they are highlighted for their devotion; it is as if the Gospel authors minimize how important these women disciples were.
Yet, on the Sunday after the crucifixion, they were the ones who came out of hiding to go to the tomb to love him one more time by performing the culturally important burial rites on his body. It took courage, what they did. Jesus was a condemned criminal. One Bible scholar, knowing Jesus was a condemned criminal, believer the women never actually came to the tomb. John Dominic Crossan believes all that we read in Mark 16 and the accompanying gospels is fiction, composed by the Gospel authors.
Crossan thinks Jesus was buried in an unmarked grave. Romans unceremoniously threw his dead body into a pit. That’s what the Romans always did and Crossan has more confidence in his knowledge of Roman tradition than the story Mark tells. But, this conclusion is really illogical. If Mark wanted the world to believe Jesus had been raised, why would he make up a story with women as the witnesses? The testimony of women in that ancient Jewish culture we considered untrustworthy. Several women were needed as witnesses whereas one man would do. Why concoct a story in which you wanted to claim something wholly unbelievable and then present the testimony of women as the primary evidence?
One thing we need to keep in mind is that no one in the period of 100 BC – 100 AD, also known as 2nd temple Judaism, believed the Messiah would be crucified or resurrected. There was great diversity in Jewish thought. Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, and Zealots represented differing philosophies and theologies. None was looking for a resurrected savior. Some did not believe in resurrection at all and those who did expected a one-time, end of times resurrection. No one was expecting a single man to be resurrected.
Logic, as well as the strongest documentary evidence, suggests that the women really did set out on that Sunday as Mark said they did. The fact that shortly after that day, a group of Jews was claiming that Jesus was the Messiah and was God in the flesh suggests the resurrection really did happen as Mark and the others claim. And this was the most unbelievable occurrence possible.
Mark writes that they were astonished. One meaning of the Greek word is that one is so overwhelmed by some unexpected event it is as if one has fallen into a trance. I felt that way on 9-11. My mind was arrested with this maddening loop. “I must do something. I don’t know what to do.” I borrowed a friend’s bike and rode around Arlington, VA where I lived running that thought cycle through my mind. Now magnify that astonishment by about 10,000 to see where they women were. In The Message, translator Eugene Peterson renders it this way. “Their heads were swimming.”
In describing the women, Mark writes that upon hearing that Jesus was resurrected, “Terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” The Greek word for terror is “Phobos,” from which we get the word Phobia. And the Greek for seized is “tromos” which is related to the English word Tremor. The women trembled at the thought.
An interesting feature of Mark’s gospel is that verse 8 is widely accepted as the original ending and it is a bizarre way to end a Gospel. The last word is the conjunction for. Most translations say, “They ran out for they were afraid.” But the straight way of translating is “They were afraid for …” and it stops. Some commentators think Mark was prematurely cut off in his writing. Others think later editors did not like what he wrote and they cut it off. All Greek experts agree that Mark 16:8 is a most peculiar verse.
I have always wondered if maybe, Mark ended in the middle of a sentence on purpose. Imagine him here reading his gospel to us and we’re on the edge of our seats. He’s just told us that Jesus has been raised! Now what will the women do? “They ran out. They were afraid. For … And he stops! He’s been reading his story of Jesus to us and he stops midsentence and he looks up at us. He smiles as if to say, OK, you finish it.
Church, you have heard this story of Jesus, now where does it go from here? The news of Jesus’ resurrection came with enough force to make the women’s heads swim, so astonished were they. The Contemporary English Version of the last verse says, “They were shaking all over.” And again, The Message, “Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.” I think Mark intentionally finished in this open-ended way so the church would finish the story by proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation he gives.
So will we? Will we hold this story up next to what we know – that dead people do not rise from death? Knowing this and knowing that the evidence, both Biblical and historical, emphatically declares that in fact on dead man, Jesus did exactly that. He rose from death. In this incongruity, will we then allow ourselves to be connected to the reality of Easter? If we are connected to it, then are our heads swimming? Are we trembling all over?
All people die, but death is not the end because Jesus has risen from death and his followers will too. This is as sure as anything can know from a historical perspective. Now Mark has told us. Now we know that what we knew was not complete, but something unforeseen, something wholly unanticipated has happened and it changes everything. Jesus is alive. What will we do now?