The ending of the gospel of Mark can be surprising – a group of women, close friends and family of Jesus, get up early in the morning to visit the tomb where Jesus lay so they can give him a proper burial. Instead of finding Jesus wrapped in burial clothes, they see an angel in white robes who explains that Jesus has been resurrected and can be found in the region of Galilee.
That sounds like good news to our ears and so we scratch our heads a bit when we read that the women leave the empty tomb “trembling and bewildered.” Furthermore, we are told that they were afraid to tell anyone what had happened.
Whether or not you think this is the original ending of the book, it seems strange that Mark deliberately highlights the fear and trembling of these women after their encounter with the empty tomb. A more convincing and exhilarating ending would include Peter and John running to the tomb, or Mary Magdalene mistakenly identifying Jesus as the gardener, or surely the account of Thomas being overwhelmingly convinced of the resurrection by Jesus himself.
Instead, Mark leaves us with a puzzled look on our faces as he describes how the women loyal to Jesus are overcome with fear to the point that they are afraid, at least for a time, to share the amazing thing they have just seen and heard. And yet, in the fear and trembling of these women, we can hear echoes of what we have been reading throughout Mark’s gospel.
In Mark 4 we read the well-known account of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. After Jesus had rebuked the winds and waves and sat down again, the disciples looked at each other and were utterly terrified at what they had just witnessed. What kind of person can quiet a storm with just words?
A chapter later we read the incredible story of Jesus’ invasion of the Decapolis region and his encounter with the man possessed by the legion of demons. Once Jesus had driven out the demons and sent them into a herd of pigs, word got around and the townspeople came out to see what had happened. What they saw was that the man whom they had previously known as a lunatic was sitting peacefully by Jesus – clothed and in his right mind. The villagers were terrified and immediately told Jesus to leave the region.
In chapter 9 Mark recounts the transfiguration of Jesus as he is praying on a mountain. For a moment, the hidden glory of Jesus is revealed for the disciples to see and they were so frightened that they didn’t know what to say.
In several other places in Mark’s gospel we hear the familiar phrase “Do not be afraid.” Whether it is Jairus the synagogue leader, or his own disciples, Jesus often has to calm the fears of those who are confronted with his power and glory.
Once we understand this thread which is woven into Mark’s narrative, we can begin to make sense of why Mark ends his story the way he does. The fear and trembling of the women at the tomb is par for the course. It is the ordinary reaction of those who encounter Jesus and see that he is not just a man, but that he possesses divine power and glory.
The women at the empty tomb were the very first human beings to witness the resurrection and come to a realization that Jesus has the power to resurrect from the dead, and the thought of the awesomeness of that power terrified them. They were utterly overwhelmed and awed by this new revelation of Jesus’ identity – he truly was God in the flesh.
The silence and fear of the women fits perfectly with the message of Mark’s gospel. The true identity of Jesus is that he is the divine Son of God and the Messiah appointed to die for the sins of the world and rise from the dead. The way we know this is true is because of the way that the people in Mark’s story respond to Jesus – with fear, trembling, and silence. They don’t respond in fear because Jesus is a scary person, but because they have caught a glimpse of the Holy One. Instead of being a strange reaction, fear and trembling is exactly what is called for.
“Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him all the earth.”