Sermon for the Eve of the Feast of St. Mark

“Trembling and astonishment had come upon them … for they were afraid”

It is known as the short ending to The Gospel according to St. Mark because some of the earliest texts of St. Mark’s Gospel end at verse eight of the sixteenth chapter rather than with the further aspects of the resurrection that take us to verse twenty. To be sure, the canonical gospel, the gospel that is authoritative for orthodox Christians, includes those additional twelve verses. The shorter ending does not mean that Mark does not believe in the doctrine of the resurrection or that the additional verses are somehow unrelated and disconnected to the rest of his gospel and unfaithful to it. Quite the contrary. The Gospels could not even be written apart from the Resurrection. It is the Resurrection that brings everything into a new light of understanding. It changes everything.

“Be not afraid” is the good news of the Resurrection, after all, in the shorter ending. The word for being afraid is more about a kind of amazement or wonderment. The women were amazed to find “the stone rolled away” and to see “a young man clothed in a long white garment.” He responds to their amazement. “Be not affrighted” – meaning ‘be not amazed’. “Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: his risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.” But this only adds to their amazement. They “trembled and were amazed”, literally, they were beside or outside of themselves. Here the word for amazement is ecstasy – ex stasis. The whole scene is about confronting a mystery, the great mystery of the Resurrection.

So what are we to make of that shorter ending? From a literary point of view, I think it is powerful and poignant ending, and serves to make the doctrinal point about the resurrection even more strongly. Only in the light of the resurrection does the story of Jesus makes any sense. The resurrection has captured the imaginations of the gospel writers and compelled them to see things in a new light without which the Gospels would never have been written.

The additional verses serve as an epilogue and as a further point of confirmation, whether as added by Mark or by someone else later on is entirely uncertain and unknowable, and, I must add, quite irrelevant to our understanding of the Christian Faith. Fear, amazement, a kind of ecstasy – these words capture the whole gamut of human emotions in the face of the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, as the psalmist and others teach us; “know thyself” as the Delphic Oracle of the Greeks teaches us. There is “fear and trembling” in our being awakened to the mighty power and truth of God. And if there is not, then we are dead in ourselves. The fear here actually opens us out to the presence of the Risen Christ and to our life in the body of Christ the Church. The mystery of the Church belongs to the mystery of the Risen Christ. They recall us to the comfort, that is to say, strength, of the doctrine of the resurrection for us in the face of the controversies and confusions of our Church and day. Here is the doctrine that counters “every blast of vain doctrine” that arises when there is no longer any “fear and trembling”, no longer any fear of the Lord, no longer any awareness of the great dangers of human presumption and folly. The Collect deliberately extends the metaphor of “every wind of doctrine” to “every blast of vain doctrine,” empty teaching.

And is that not our problem? We no longer know what the Church is and what it is for because we demand that everything be accountable to us. Such is the idolatry of pragmatism. We insist that everything be measured in practical terms, whatever that means, and in so doing can only discover and, perhaps frighteningly so, that we are naked, empty and without hope because we are without God.

We are without God because we have banished him from ourselves. The Church ceases to be, first and foremost, the place of the awesome worship of God. Instead, we demand that the Church reflect our world and day, our projects and plans, and that God be accommodated to our agendas and our perceptions. We demand that our experiences be the measure of reality and that every mess-up in our lives be paraded about and celebrated as truth. There is no fear of God because, in part, we have taken his mercy for granted. In short, we want God to be subject to us.

Or we want the Church to be another comfort station for ourselves in the contemporary victim culture, dishing out spiritual bromides or prozac or, these days, perhaps, viagra for a depressed and depressing world. In short, we want God to service us. To which Jesus says, “seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down”. We have to be broken before we can be rebuilt in love.

It is only when we confront our emptiness that God can make something out of us. Only in confronting the contradictions of our souls and in discovering the limitations of our worldly ambitions can we begin to learn about “the building up of the body of Christ in love” as Ephesians puts it. Here our fears in the sense of awe and wonder spring us into the motions of love. We cannot feel it and think it enough.

“Trembling and astonishment had come upon them … for they were afraid”

Fr. David Curry
Eve of St. Mark, 2017

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