When all we get is the empty tomb
“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.” Mark 16:8
Good evening and Happy Easter! Tonight, we celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter, also known as Paschal Vigil. This vigil is one of the oldest liturgies in Christianity. It has a different quality than the liturgies we will celebrate tomorrow on Easter Sunday. That is because tonight, we don’t begin with the Easter proclamation; we begin with a vigil in the darkness of Holy Saturday.
The ancient texts we read during the Easter Vigil, each one thousands of years old, tell the story of God's saving deeds throughout history.
We began with the first creation story when God brought forth light, and established structure over the chaos. We continued with the story of the Exodus, when God separated the waters of the Red Sea and liberated Israel. We heard from the prophet Isaiah, how God offers salvation to all.
The gospel account of the empty tomb is connected to all of it. All of salvation history moves towards the moment of the empty tomb. Tonight, this moment is revealed in the words of Mark’s gospel, when God rolls back the stone. This is we hear:
“As [the women] entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 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.” The End.
The End? you might wonder. Yes. The End.
Most Biblical scholars agree that the original manuscript ended with verse 8. It is a wholly unsatisfactory ending.
The faithfulness of the disciples and changed to faithlessness. The men abandon Jesus at his arrest and are in hiding. The women are commissioned to go tell them of the resurrection, yet they remain fearful and silent.
There’s no proof of the resurrection. There’s no commissioning of the apostles. There’s no breakfast on the beach. There’s no reassurance that Jesus is okay. It just ends with the empty tomb.
It’s an ending that demands an epilogue, and indeed two early editors did precisely that. If you were to open your Bible you would see two different addendums labeled “the shorter ending of Mark” and the “longer ending of Mark.” But these were added much later. What if tonight we consider the original text? What are we to make with a story with an such abrupt ending?
For the last two months, my husband and I have been re-watching “The Sopranos.” We finished it last night. The series about a New Jersey mafia family ran for eight years on HBO. In the infamous final scene of the final episode…
Tony Soprano meets his family at a local diner. Tony selects a song on the tabletop jukebox, “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. One by one they arrive and slide into the booth. They smile at each other. They talk about the importance of remembering the times that were good. They share an order of onion rings. They are happy. The final scene is a close camera shot on Tony’s face. He smiles as his daughter enters the diner.
Then BAM! The screen goes black and the music stops mid-syllable in the phrase “don’t stop.”
All over America people, my husband included, screamed at their television sets assuming that their cable had just gone out. And then came the slow realization that this was how the story ends. With darkness and the echoes of the interrupted syllable hanging in the silence. The End.
What are we to make of a story with such an abrupt ending?
Popular opinion contends that Tony Soprano was shot and killed. Even now my husband and I debate the meaning of that final moment.
What were the writers saying about Tony Soprano? about his life? about what happens after death? Why did Tony choose “Don’t Stop Believing?”
What did he believe in? The power of love? He certainly loved his family. Was that enough to save him? And what happened to them later after witnessing the carnage. How were they able to go on?
And maybe that is precisely the point of Mark’s abrupt ending. It draws us, the reader and the listener, into the story itself, to imagine what happens next, and to ponder its meaning.
Mark’s gospel is the shortest and sparest of the gospels. Much is left to the imagination of the reader and listener. There’s no story of a virgin birth. In chapter 14, Jesus promises that he will see them in Galilee after his death, but there’s no appearance of the risen Christ. Jesus just appears, and Jesus just disappears.
Without a birth narrative, Mark’s gospel requires trust that Jesus of Nazareth was more than a mere human being. Without a post-resurrection appearance, Mark’s gospel requires faith “that he is risen.”
What happened next? What happened when they saw Jesus in Galilee? What did he say? How did the disciples move from faithlessness to faithfulness? How do they move from inaction to action? What is the meaning of this story?
The women in this story have been keeping vigil. All four gospels record the fact that female disciples were present at the cross and the first to arrive at the tomb. The names of the specific women who show up varies from gospel to gospel. Mark gives us Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
Mark tells us that the women stood at a distance during the Crucifixion, separated from the rest of the crowd. For three hours, they stood there and kept a silent vigil as Jesus bled and struggled to breath.
The two Marys followed his body and watched Joseph of Arimathea lay it in a rock-hewn tomb. Then the women returned to their dwelling places to observe the Sabbath.
And they began another vigil. Another night, another day, and a second night. They kept vigil while the tomb was still full. They kept vigil watching and waiting and wondering what the morning would bring.
We begin tonight in the darkness of Holy Saturday. The dark is not something to be feared. By keeping vigil, we become aware of our surroundings. In darkness, we become aware of the transcendent mystery of God. The dark becomes a place for prayer and soul-searching.
Keeping vigil is the work of watching and waiting for God.
Sometimes we gather together to keep vigil, to wait and watch in anticipation of what might come. Have you ever waited anticipation of a birth, comforting a mother through her the labor pains? Have you ever gathered with family and friends in a hospital waiting room while someone you loved was ill? Have you gathered together in the hours and days after a loved one’s death?
Keeping vigil is about watching and waiting and praying and hoping.
Tonight, we begin with a vigil in the darkness of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday when the tomb was full, and the grief was palpable.
We keep vigil to imaginatively wait with the women, remembering the horror of the cross, and to sit with an awareness of a tomb still full. We are given the chance to enter into that experience of holding our breath and watching and waiting for dawn.
Early at dawn on the third day, the women walked out of darkness into light to anoint the body of the man they had known. It was the last act of care for the man they knew as Jesus of Nazareth. Who would roll away the stone they wondered?
In the end, only the faithfulness of God can be counted on. God, who has been at work throughout salvation history. God who rolled away the stone and raised his only son.
Even though we may long for a happy ending. Even though we may long for a resurrected Jesus, the gospel simply ends on the empty tomb.
We keep the vigil because we are saying that the empty tomb still matters.
The empty tomb still matters because suffering and pain are still very much a part of our human existence.
The empty tomb still matters because all of us will go to the grave.
The empty tomb still matters because there will be times when we keep vigils together with the people we love, with each other, during difficult days and nights, and we need to know that our waiting and watching are grounded in hope.
And unlike the final scene of The Sopranos, which moves from light to dark, and life into death, our gospel story’s final scene moves from dark to light, and from death into life. And maybe that is enough.