[This is the third in a three-part series on Mark’s Gospel. The other parts are 1. Hearing Mark’s Gospel and 2. The Strange Beginning of Mark’s Gospel.]
While Mark’s beginning is strange to those who think about it carefully, his ending is strange to anyone who reads. In the oldest and best manuscripts, Mark’s Gospel ends like this:
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.
That’s it. No meeting the resurrected Jesus, no moment of glory, not even a moment when the petrified women actually tell someone what happened. “They were afraid”—and the curtains drop.
The longer ending printed in our Bibles was written very, very early on, so early that it is canonical and considered an inspired text in its own right. But the very fact that the longer ending is so ancient demonstrates that even the earliest Church found Mark’s ending strange. No resurrection scene? We gotta fix that.
For Mark, however, it made sense. And I have a theory about how.
I think that Mark’s Gospel was written to be read at the Easter Vigil, and I think this explains the ending. Four factors incline me to think that the original setting for Mark’s Gospel was the Easter Vigil:
- Mark’s Gospel is short.
It is beyond doubt that Mark’s Gospel, like other ancient texts, was written to be read aloud to a group. My own experience shows that Mark’s Gospel works well when read out loud in a single session, and this fact suggests to me that Mark made his gospel short in order so that it could be read in a single session. So it seems probable that the original setting for hearing Mark’s Gospel was a longish Christian assembly.
At the same time, Mark’s Gospel is on the long side as read-alouds go. It’s longer than any of the New Testament letters. So I would guess that the longish Christian assembly in question was not just any Sunday of the year but some special day.
Now in the earliest Church, as Dom Gregory Dix explains, the only liturgical “special days” were Easter and Pentecost: there was no Christmas, no feast of the Ascension, no celebrations in honor of Mary. So if Mark’s length suggests that it was read all at once at a special liturgy, that would make the setting very probably the Easter Vigil. This also fits with the practice, going as far back as we can trace the ritual, of having much more extended Scripture readings at the Easter Vigil.
- Mark puts baptism front and center.
When I ask my students why Mark would begin with the baptism of Jesus, someone always mentions that we begin our Christian lives with baptism. The original audience, being Christians, would have immediately seen themselves in the baptism scene: they were led down into water, they were immersed, they received the Holy Spirit and became adopted children of God.
To this general insight I would add that early Christians were baptized at the Easter Vigil. This fact the key to understanding the whole history of the ritual. If Mark wrote his Gospel to be read on the night when new believers were baptized, then it makes all the sense in the world that he would begin his Gospel with the baptism and go out of his way to show how the baptismal ritual relates to the saving moment of the Cross.
- Jesus breaks the fourth wall in Mark’s Gospel.
There is only one place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus addresses us, the hearers, directly. Everywhere else he speaks to the crowds, to the Pharisees, to his disciples, but in Mark 13:37 he suddenly glances off the page, so to speak, with these words: “And what I say to you [disciples] I say to all: Watch.”
For our purposes, this is a significant event. We want to know the original setting in which Mark’s Gospel would have been heard, and Mark has one place where Jesus speaks not into the narrative setting of the story but directly into the hearer’s setting. It is a verse without parallel in any of the other gospels. Does it give us any clue as to how Mark imagines his audience?
The context for Jesus’ breaking the fourth wall is his discourse about the end of time. He elaborates on the theme of the end of the world and the second coming of the Christ in a lengthy discourse, and he ends with a short parable about a master who went away and left the servants in charge. The servant who is awake and watching when the master returns will be blessed—but beware, because you don’t know when the master is coming! And then Jesus concludes the discourse on the second coming with the words in 13:37 as quoted above.
As it happens, in the early Church the Easter Vigil was a time of waiting for the second coming of Christ. The emphasis on the end times that we now associate with Advent was then—and is still today, to some degree—characteristic of the holy night before Easter. Imagine yourself staying up at night with a group to wait for the coming of the Lord. You’re nodding and then jerking awake, struggling to stay awake through the long reading of Mark’s Gospel, when suddenly Jesus speaks directly into your space:
“And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.”
Or as it is rendered in the Latin Vulgate: Vigilate.
- The ending of Mark’s gospel is abrupt.
At last, we get back to the matter of Mark’s ending. I think the abruptness of Mark’s ending is a kind of evidence in itself: the fact that Mark’s Gospel seems incomplete suggests that Mark did not intend for it to be complete in itself. That is, the abrupt ending hints that perhaps Mark imagined some other factor rounding out the audience’s experience.
Here’s my theory: I think that Mark did not need to write out an appearance of the risen Lord because he knew the liturgy would continue and that the audience would meet the Lord in person in the Eucharist. The vivid experience hearers report of Jesus being right in front of them via Mark’s story leads naturally to the real, bodily presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic celebration. The note of awe and mystery at the story’s end sets the stage for entering the Mysteries.
While the new believers were being baptized and confirmed over the course of the night, the climax of the Vigil was when they received the Eucharist together with the community for the first time. Just as the night was spent waiting for the coming of the Lord, so the night was spent waiting for his Eucharistic communion with the newly reborn Christians. Mark didn’t want his gospel to end with a super-satisfying bang, because he didn’t want his gospel to be the climax of the evening.
All this makes sense in its own context. But as soon as the text of Mark’s Gospel moved to another congregation where other Easter Vigil readings were already established, the original ending of Mark’s Gospel made no sense. Suddenly the text needed to stand on its own, so someone had to do what someone in fact did, namely supply a real ending in which the disciples meet Jesus. The shorter ending made sense to Mark, but the longer ending is what should be in our Bibles.