The Empty Tomb
All four gospels depict the surprise of the women when they find the empty tomb. But Mark gives the most specific and intense description of the women’s emotional response:
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:8).
Moreover, Mark was so eager to have his readers pay special attention to the women’s response, that he may have even made this the final verse of his gospel. The longer endings of Mark only appear in later version of the manuscript, which leads most scholars to think that the shorter ending was Mark’s original words. Some have argued that Mark wrote a different conclusion that has now been lost, but this theory cannot be proven.
Thus this verse not only records the surprise of the women; it also surprises us! We expect the women at the empty tomb to be cheerful, to be ebullient. When the angel says “He has risen,” the women are supposed to say “He has risen indeed!” But we cannot force the women into our expectations. And if truth be told, there are many who do not experience Easter morning with springy happiness and bright smiles (as David O Taylor has discussed). Even today, there are many women and men for whom the empty tomb prompts surprise and even fear. Perhaps Mark wants us to pay attention to those feelings, to enter deeper into the mystery of the full meaning of the resurrection.
There’s an important aspect of the women’s experience that doesn’t come through in translation. The word translated “astonishment” is the Greek word “ekstasis,” known to us through its cognate “ecstasy.” The verse feels rather different if we read it that way:
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and ecstasy had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:8).
Ekstasis means to stand outside of, and it refers to a kind of out-of-body experience. We may be aware of the a modern drug which is called “ecstasy,” which aims to achieve this kind of experience. In the ancient world, they didn’t have our drug, but they were keenly interested in ecstatic experience, and they would pursue it through dance, music, wine, and religious rituals. But the women did not have any of these promptings that first Easter morning. They were not partying, and they were not under the influence of any substance. And yet, when they saw the empty tomb, trembling and ekstasis seized them.
What prompted the women to ecstasy was the shocking discovery, that first Easter morning, that they were dealing with the living God. They had followed Jesus, financially supported Jesus, and loved Jesus, but they did not believe Jesus was God. They believed Jesus was dead. But if Christ is risen, then he is not merely a wonderful man. If Christ is risen, he is not only the returning King. If Christ is risen, then he is himself the Lord God of Hosts, and everything he says is true. That’s more than a bit scary, when you think about it. It’s also more than a bit hopeful.
If we follow the women to the empty tomb, we won’t find Jesus there, but rather a truth that takes us outside ourselves, an ecstasy of joy far deeper than happiness, a joy that has passed through fear and trembling.