Thought for the day
When is an ending not an ending? Mark takes the huge risk of an apparently negative ending to the story which began resoundingly in 1:1. The ending does not satisfy and never did…and that is Mark’s very point.
To have a neat narrative ending would close the story in the past, whereas Mark forces us to realise that the story goes on the lives of all disciples, then and now. We are the bearers of the Good News, we are the continuation of the story, a story which in truth will never really end, thanks be to God.
Give us the courage, God of the Good News, to take that message into our hearts and lives, into every time and place. Even when we cannot feel it, we know that the Lord is working with with us and so we do not lose heart.
Mark 16:9 [When he had risen from the dead, early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala, from whom he had driven out seven demons. 10 She went and carried the news to his mourning and sorrowful followers, 11 but when they were told that he was alive and that she had seen him they did not believe it.
Mark 16:12 Later he appeared in a different form to two of them while they were on their way into the country. 13 These also went and took the news to the others, but again no one believed them.
Mark 16:14 Still later he appeared to the eleven while they were at table, and reproached them for their incredulity and dullness, because they had not believed those who had seen him after he was raised from the dead. 15 Then he said to them: ‘Go to every part of the world, and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Those who believe it and receive baptism will be saved; those who do not believe will be condemned. 17 Faith will bring with it these miracles: believers will drive out demons in my name and speak in strange tongues; 18 if they handle snakes or drink any deadly poison, they will come to no harm; and the sick on whom they lay their hands will recover.’
Mark 16:19 So after talking with them the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God; 20 but they went out to proclaim their message far and wide, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed their words by the miracles that followed.]
The word “ascension” is a metaphor for Jesus’ entry into the transcendent realm, a new level of being, after his resurrection.
Kind of writing
In the New Testament, the primary image comes from Luke-Acts. In Luke 24:36-53, the departure of Jesus seems to take place on the same day as the resurrection. In Acts 1:1-11, we are told it happened after forty days. In Matthew 28:16-20, it takes place after the disciples had travelled to the Galilee, with the time lapse unspecified. In John’s Gospel, the “lifting up” represents both crucifixion (literally) and resurrection (metaphorically). However, even there, the distinction of a moment of departure / return is captured in 20:17. The separation and departure are well prepared for in the Fourth Gospel in the Farewell Discourse (14-17), in which Jesus promises the Holy Spirit as the comforter. It takes place, however, on Easter Sunday.
In summary, the issue of Jesus’ leaving this world and entering heaven, with consequent apparent separation from his followers, is of widespread concern in the New Testament. It is all the more surprising, therefore, to realise that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel had no such “ending” at all and that none of the three or more endings added to it later is original.
In its first edition, Mark ended starkly: 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). As this was the first Gospel to be written and there were no other endings, an ending such as in the others would not have been expected. At the same time, the ending in v.8 is not quite true. If the women had said nothing to anyone at all ever, then we would not have had the proclamation of the resurrection! So, why the stark ending? In part, for didactic purposes following Mark’s theme of the failure of those closest to Jesus, including even the women at the empty tomb. There are no guarantees!
The added endings are usually printed these days in brackets, at the end of the Gospel or sometimes in the footnotes. In any case, the church reads the so-called Longer Ending in the liturgy. The Longer Ending seems to be an addition placed at the end after the Gospels of Luke and Matthew had become available. The earliest and most reliable manuscripts lack this Ending, which is known from the end of the second century ad. The various endings reflect the reception of Mark’s Gospel in later centuries and are interesting from that point of view.
Old Testament background
There is one story of “ascension” in the Old Testament, which is probably in everybody’s mind as this text was being written and heard.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. (2Kings 2:9-12)
When Elijah was enveloped in the whirlwind, Elisha was filled with his spirit. He performed twice as many signs, and marvels with every utterance of his mouth. Never in his lifetime did he tremble before any ruler, nor could anyone intimidate him at all. (Sirach 48:12)
Elijah, because of great zeal for the law, was taken up into heaven. (1Maccabees 2:58)
New Testament foreground
In one scene in the Gospels, Jesus gives the epitome of his teaching, which is open to all. The New Testament echoes this widely (see Paul below) and the Johannine reception of this teaching is especially vigorous and rich.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34)
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1Corinthians 15:50-54)
Verse 15 This is an echo of Matthew 28:19. “Proclaim” means to announce effectively. See also Luke 24:47.
Verse 16 This sounds like an echo of John’s gospel (“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” [John 3:18] Cf. John 7:38; 14:12). In John’s Gospel—always a bit black and white—the one who does not believe is one who did but lost faith. The teaching on baptism is found widely: Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21.
Verses 17-18 Foolish people have tried these things literally (!). The meaning is on another level. Jesus’ power against the force of evil is a gift to his followers. Using the name is found in Mark 9:39. Speaking in tongues the proclamation transcends cultures and reaches into every human heart. Cf. Acts 2:4-11 and 1 Cor 14.
This is a reassurance that the missionaries will be under the protection of the risen Lord, who will be with them always. Snakes are mentioned in Luke 10:19. Cf. Acts 28:3-6. The Lord’s own gift of healing will be transferred to his followers. Cf. Acts 3:1-10; 5:12-16; 9:12, 17-18; James 5:14-15.
Verse 19 This is symbolic language for Jesus’ entry into God’s presence. “Right hand” is a regular expression for shared authority in the Old Testament (Ps 16:8, 11; 17:7; 18:35; 20:6; 21:8; 44:3; 45:4, 9; 48:10; 60:5; 63:8; 73:23; 77:10; 78:54; 80:15, 17; 89:13, 25, 42; 91:7; 98:1; 108:6; 109:31; 110:1, 5; 118:15-16; 121:5; 137:5; 138:7; 139:10; 142:4).
Verse 20 Both dimensions are present: they go out and the Lord is with them. Cf. Acts 4:30; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; Romans 15:19 and Heb 2:3-4.
Pointers for prayer
1. In the preceding verse Jesus had rebuked the apostles for their lack of faith. Despite this he commissioned them to bring the Good News to the whole world. Witnesses to the Good News do not have to be perfect. There is encouragement for us in this. To whom have you brought good news? Who has been a messenger of good news to you?
2. Jesus then tells them that their witness will have quite dramatic effects, helping people to overcome demons, bring them peace and healing. Things happen when we have belief in God and in ourselves. Strong faith can enable us to meet and overcome difficulties, in ways that waverers cannot do. Perhaps you have had experience of this?
3. The ascension marked the end of the visible presence of Jesus with the disciples, but he was with them in other ways. ‘The Lord worked with them’. Sometimes we can experience that death is not the end of the presence of someone significant to us. We can experience the unseen presence and influence of a parent, a friend, or an inspiring leader, after they have died. Has this happened for you? Have you also experienced the hidden presence of the Lord working with you?
God of power and might, in the mystery of the ascension you have raised up and glorified your Son, and exalted our humanity at his right hand.
Confirm the good news your Church proclaims, so that when Christ returns in glory all nations may be gathered into the kingdom where he lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit God for ever and ever. Amen.