Silent and Afraid: a project

  Mark the Evangelist , Il Pordenone.

Mark the Evangelist, Il Pordenone.

16 [4] When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. [5] As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. [6] 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. [7] 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.’ [8] 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.

1 [1] The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This is my first post on Theology Corner. I felt that moving my blog to this platform would finally encourage me to blog with more consistency. The only challenge I faced is what to write about. I finally have my answer.

I have been wrestling with the Gospel of Mark for several years - it was my gateway drug into formal theological study. As I’ve studied and wrestled with the text my views have grown considerably. I frequently return to the Gospel of Mark as a way to help me think through the shifting sands of my theological commitments. This text is a work of pure genius, and so it has been rich enough to hold my theological reflections over several years.

Finally, I think, I am ready to venture a reading of the text. Fortunately this aligns with the year of Mark in the common lectionary. So my hope is that between my own musings, and preaching opportunities that come my way I am able to develop a basic approach to each part of the text. And at the end of the year I’ll have enough to collate together for a more complete interpretation of the text as a whole.

This post is aimed at trying to introduce my idiosyncratic approach to the text.

My view is that when you read the Gospel of Mark and come to its end (which is properly at v16.8), you should immediate begin reading it again. This is why I have placed the final half chapter and the first verse at the start of this post. I am interested in the fact that the text effaces itself. It erases the legitimacy of its own ending. As the text ends we are left with the two Marys and Salome: silent and afraid. And yet as we turn to the beginning of the text we are reminded that this is the beginning of the Good News. This text we have before us exists only because of the message that the women did not tell to anyone. Perhaps after all they were courageous: the first apostles, the first evangelists.

This raises significant questions about how we should approach this text which seems to happily undermine itself. We should remember that this text belonged to a particular community, it spread as an authoritative text throughout early Christian communities - and has remained so even today. The point is that we need to take seriously how this text transgresses its own limits.

Perhaps if we read the text not simply twice, but three times, we realise another way the text could interpret itself. We are the ones who bear the responsibility of witnessing to the resurrection; the women who are silent and afraid thus offer a challenge to us: will we be silent and afraid, or will we overcome our fear as they must have?

There is a certain conceit that this open-ended and constructive approach to the Gospel of Mark must adhere to: the text as we have it must be accepted as it is, and as a completely deliberate act. This, of course, is probably not true. As we read through this text we might find reason to overcome this assumption. And yet my approach begins with this conceit in order to appreciate the deep richness of the text. This interpretive project is as much a work of constructive imagination as it is an attempt at levels of exegesis. This is part of what makes this approach idiosyncratic.

The other aspect of the interpretive approach of this project which is idiosyncratic is that it doesn’t aim first and foremost to read the text as a narrative. Now, certainly, Mark’s Gospel is a narrative. And it is a particularly interesting narrative, with inspired characterisation, and incredibly canny structure. However, the approach I want to take here does not limit my interpretation to these narrative components. Rather, I see the text first and foremost as an artefact within the community of faith, playing a dynamic and complex role in the formation of theology within that community. One might conjecture, for example, that the frantic action of Jesus in the earliest parts of Mark’s Gospel are in fact designed to serve as a source book for sermon illustrations. Mark collects there various stories that floated around the earliest Christian communities in order to provide a standard edition of Jesus anecdotes. As such, the earliest part of the narrative may not in fact be written with consideration of the characterisation of Jesus within the story, but with consideration of the characterisation of Jesus within the preaching life of the community.

This shift from the text as a world, to the text as a part of the community of faith raises other considerations throughout the text. To foreshadow a future post which I have had sitting as a draft for 2 years: while there may not be a resurrection appearance at the end of the text, there may be one reworked into the middle. In the transfiguration, perhaps, we can see Mark countering in his communities what Luther might call a theology of glory, instead Mark wants to promote a theology of the cross. The constructive approach I am interested in takes seriously that this text sits alongside other texts, the accretions of culture and tradition over time, and the practices of communities of faith, and all of these must be a part of our interpretation. We do not, then, have in mind a historically located sense, but a fully present, fully living meaning for ourselves.

Precisely because the text qua text effaces itself, and transgresses its own boundaries, it leads us to relocate it within a fuller account of the life of faith. The text challenges us, not because it is difficult to excavate ancient meanings, but because it confronts us as our contemporary: it most directly challenges us. Will we be silent and afraid? Or will we recognise what this text is for us: The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

To make this explicit: the opening verse of this text is titular. And so this journey to put into words, and some images, and some music, what this text means for us is simply to partake in the journey of the way. The journey that seeks to write the second volume: The Continuing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This added volume which we write with our own lives.

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Grace and peace,

Matt.