“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Mark 16:8
With those words, the Gospel of Saint Mark comes to an abrupt end. English Bibles have verses 9-20 of Chapter 16 added to the original ending, usually with a note that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts did not include the final twelve verses.
If you were Saint Mark, would you have ended the story there? Would you have finished your account with a sentence telling of frightened women running away from the empty tomb?
Perhaps it was accidental. Perhaps the original version was longer and the original ending was lost. Perhaps, even if it was an odd place to end, it was deliberate. Some scholars think that Mark was writing down Peter’s teaching, and that it was logical to end when he does. The Gospel tells the story up to the women finding the empty tomb, Mark and all the other members of the early church tell the story from that point onwards.
It always seems reassuring that there are rough edges in Scripture, they are a mark of honesty. If you were going to make a story up, you would tend to make sure all the pieces fitted smoothly together. It is human nature to believe those things where everything is consistent and nothing is contradictory. The fact that there are parts of the New Testament that might not be consistent with others, that might even contradict others, is a sign that people tried to set down honestly what they had received and what they believed.
If the Gospel story had ended here, though, whether by accident or design, what difference might it have made to the church? What difference might it have made to history?
Terrified and afraid. the women are also amazed. They have gone to the tomb, which is already open and they have met a young man in a long, white robe and they have been given the initiative. The message of Verses 6-7 is clear and unmistakeable, the women are the ones who are to share the message of the resurrection. “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.”
If, at that point in Christian history, women had retained the initiative, how much different everything might have been. If men had not been allowed to rewrite the story in an exclusive way, the history of the church may have been very different.
The women are entrusted the good news of the resurrection, but the men are determined that they shall be the leaders. Whatever the attitude of Jesus towards women, the men are determined that they shall be subjugated.
The church that emerges by medieval times is one that is far removed from Jesus of Nazareth. Bishops become men of influence and dominance. The church becomes exploitative and arrogant. Sectarianism is considered a correct attitude. Matters of doctrine become matters of conflict. The church takes the side of the rich against the poor. The fabulous wealth that is accumulated is a denial of everything that Jesus taught.
Is it imaginable that the women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning would have thought that faithfulness to Jesus would permit the crimes that the church would permit in Jesus’ name?
Think about all of the corruption and wrongdoing down through the centuries, think about the abuse scandals that have continued into our own time, do you think that the women who ran terrified and amazed from the tomb were women who would have countenanced a church where such things were possible?
The women had remained faithful to Jesus when the men had run away, their gentle humility is in marked contrast with the strident intolerance was to develop among the male leadership. Had the church continued to be a model of gentle humility, its history would have been entirely different. Not only would the history of the church have been different, the history of the world would have been different, the centuries of persecution of Jewish people and the centuries of conflict with Muslim people would not have occurred. A church where those women had retained the initiative would have been something thoroughly different from the church that has come down through the centuries.
If we were to be faithful to the Easter story, we would constantly recall those women and seek to recreate a church and a world that might reflect their faith, that might be filled with a sense of fear in encountering God and a sense of amazement at what he has done.