The meaning of the empty tomb

Psalms 148, 149, 150 (Morning)

Psalms 114, 115 (Evening)

Exodus 18:1-12

1 John 2:7-17

Mark 16:9-20

Our Gospel reading today is from the end of Mark…sorta.

You might have noticed those odd little brackets at the end of this book in your Bible. If you have a study Bible, you might even see it broken down as one set of brackets being labeled “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and “The Longer Ending of Mark.”

Here’s the slightly sordid truth about that: Both endings are very likely add-ons. The original (best as we can tell) Mark ends with the empty tomb and “they were afraid.”

Origen’s writings in the 3rd Century on the Gospel of Mark stop after “they were afraid,” implying that this was, indeed the end of that gospel at that time. Some scholars even speculate Mark died and didn’t finish the story. But somewhere down the line, it seems that someone (or several someones) got uncomfortable that Mark’s ending didn’t really mesh well with the endings of the other three Gospels, so they tried to improve on it with a little better evidence of the Resurrection. For some reason it just felt uncomfortable to someone to have everyone running from the empty tomb in fear, once enough time had passed for Christianity to have understood our relationship to the resurrection a little better.

It reminds me of second year medical students.

Second year medical students are sharply honed to pick “right answers” for subjects that have distinct criteria for a diagnosis. They often try to stuff square pegs into round holes to feed that craving to be “right.” They are struggling with the transition of being, indeed, probably one of the smartest sets of people on the planet when it comes to single right answers, who now must convert to a more clinical mindset. The clinical mindset seldom has one right answer–there are many, and it often takes time, asking the right questions, and ordering the right tests to arrive at the correct diagnosis in a patient–not to mention the disease has to evolve far enough in the patient for the classic signs/symptoms to be elicited. It’s filled with tension in the dynamic between doctor and patient (The patient doesn’t always understand that the disease doesn’t usually pop up with noticeable symptoms from Day One) and it constantly pushes at the young doctor’s feelings of self-worth and competency.

Second year medical students often deal with this by blaming everyone else–their teachers, the school, their significant other. It’s a test of intestinal fortitude to teach them on some days, because they will nitpick an instructor to death for the sake of one point on a test that nets them a gain of 0.01% on their course grade.

So it is with the meaning of the empty tomb, I think.

I suspect that probably one of the most deep-seated feelings about our life and self-worth is that when we die, we simply flicker out like a candle and that’s that. We are intimately attached to our sense of self, and we simply can’t wrap our heads around the non-existence of our selves as we know them. Oddly, for many of us it’s the Easter season that pokes at those fears rather than Lent–possibly because we celebrate something we don’t understand and the odds of us disappearing from the cemetery three days after our death, or sitting bolt upright at the funeral home are pretty slim. We might even lie in bed staring at the ceiling thinking what I call the Seven Words of Abject Despair–“Maybe this life is all there is.”

All of us desire assurance that we are “right.” So did the writers of the Shorter Ending of Mark, and the Longer Ending of Mark, I think. Perhaps, though, the original ending of Mark was meant to be just what it is–a reminder that part of our spiritual growth is to simply accept our fears and live out the Gospel anyway. What can each of us consider this Easter season that moves us beyond fear, into acceptance of the gift God has bestowed on each of us?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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