Thursday, March 08, 2012

Women and the Empty Tomb: Making Sense of Mark's Ending

Imagine you are part of the original audience of the Gospel of Mark. Christianity is about 40 or so years old. You are a second-generation believer. You believe, like many in your community, that Jesus has been raised from the dead. You believe, like many in your community, that he appeared to Peter, and then to many others, and then to Paul. Then, this short gospel comes along. It is disturbing. It does not have any stories of the risen Christ appearing to his disciples. Moreover, it ends with women at the empty tomb silent and afraid. You do not even shake the hands of the one who read the gospel. No one did in the whole congregation. Actually, even today, most people don't care about the Gospel of Mark. They would rather read Matthew, Luke, and John. These gospels end right--like Walt Disney movies. Matthew ends with the Great Commission and the Risen Christ's promise of Immanuel. John has the "Do you love me" cycle, and a beach scene to boot. Luke has special effects, Jesus ascending to the heavens. Mark's ending sucks! It is worse than the ending of Fernando Poe Jr.'s Sigaw ng Digmaan. He dies. FPJ is not supposed to die in any of his movies. If he does, he's supposed to resurrect (like in Panday III), or be shot after the credits (like in Sierra Madre), or have a twin brother somewhere (like in Probinsiyano). Some fans reportedly almost tear down a moviehouse where Sigaw... was showing. Mark's ending: women at the empty tomb, silent and afraid...Crap! Take a single verse in the Bible, say John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”). Take five biblical scholars using the same method for interpreting scripture, say redaction criticism. And what do you have? Five different readings. There is no such thing as a disinterested reading or reader. Interpretation is always perspectival and particular. Interpretation always involves choices. Take a popular character in serials, say Darna. Take five faithful followers of the show, including my youngest son, and ask them why nobody in the narrative recognizes Narda as Darna, and vice-versa. And what do you have? Five different reasons. Take Mark’s ending, 16:8 which reads, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Check out your Bible. Most have a footnote on verse 8 that says ancient manuscripts end on this verse. Verses 9 to 20 are later additions—attempts of ancient communities to make sense of Mark’s ending. If you subscribe to the argument in synoptics studies that Mark was written first and both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source document, then Matthew and Luke also provide endings that try to make sense of Mark’s. You find in your Bible then at least four or five different attempts at making sense of Mark 16:8. Two of the more popular attempts at making sense of Mark’s ending come from feminist interpreters. The first one, a historical-reconstructionist perspective, argues that the women did not remain silent and afraid. How could the gospel ever spread if the first witnesses remained fearful and quiet? The second one comes from the literary perspective. Jesus’s followers drop the ball. The men drop it first. And then the women. The Markan Jesus tells his disciples God will raise him up several times in the narrative. The men don’t believe him. The women came to the tomb to anoint a dead body, to celebrate a fallen comrade’s life by anointing him in death. They did not go there to welcome a Risen Lord. How about us—the text’s present readers—will we also drop the ball? If Mark were a movie, it definitely does not end like a Walt Disney movie. It’s open-ended, much like the book of Jonah. The narrative ends at 16:8 with women silent and afraid. I propose the following readings that try to make sense of that ending. “Watch” the “movie” we call Mark. One can argue that its major theme is suffering-- vicarious suffering to be exact. Its lead character inaugurates a mass movement that begins in Galilee. When the movement eventually reaches the power center of Jerusalem, its leader is executed. Then the young man at the tomb tells the woman that their leader has been raised, and is waiting for them in Galilee, where everything started. And the cycle begins again. His followers are to follow the same path as their leader—the path of vicarious suffering. Wouldn’t you be afraid and silent? “Watch” the movie we call Mark again. If one focuses on its major characters, one discovers quite fast that most of them are men. Jesus’s disciples are all men until you get to the crucifixion scene, almost at the end, where, like an afterthought, the narrator tells the audience that Jesus had women disciples. Listen to the young man’s pronouncement at the empty tomb—it’s for the men. The risen Christ is supposed to meet the men in Galilee. The women has had enough of this “all men program.” Tama na. Sobra na. Palitan na. Wouldn’t you be afraid and silent when you realize the repercussions of saying “enough” to patriarchy and androcentrism? If one puts “the vicarious suffering cycle” reading with the “all-men-program” reading together, you’ll have women—by their collective act of disobeying the young man at the tomb-- saying “enough” to the cycles of violence that ultimately always victimize women and children. Now, wouldn’t you be afraid and silent? A reading of Mark focused on the disciples would soon show that, more often than not, they cannot understand what Jesus does and what he says. Over and over Jesus has to explain his words and his acts. In chapters 8, 9, and 10, Jesus tells them about his suffering and his resurrection, and they misunderstand him. The narrative ends with women coming to the tomb to anoint a dead body. No one among Jesus’s named disciples believed that he will rise again. But one woman in the whole narrative does believe. Read Mark 14. There an unnamed woman gate-crashes a party for Jesus and anoints him with expensive oil. And Jesus says that what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. What did she do? She did an act of faith. She believed Jesus. She anointed Jesus’s body for burial because there would be no body to anoint later. There would only be an empty tomb—as the named women disciples discover when they came with their anointing oils. Only one person in the entire gospel believed that Jesus will be raised up. One unnamed woman believed in the power of the resurrection. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that goodness will always triumph over evil; that hope is stronger than despair; that faith will drive away all fear; that love is greater than indifference; and that life will always conquer death. Now, if you are one of the many who did not believe Jesus and suddenly the one you thought was dead has been raised and is waiting for you in Galilee, wouldn’t you be afraid and silent? (updated 8 March 2012)