The unfinished ending to Mark’s Gospel leaves room for grief and trauma in a way that public worship very often fails to do. In this guest post Dr Sarah Travis invites us to consider how much our worship and preaching makes space for those who have experienced trauma.
As a pastor, I felt it was important for me to return to worship as soon as possible after the death of my three year old son. Not as a leader – I wasn’t ready for that – but as a participant. I believed that grief is best shared, and that I needed the warm support of a loving community. Both things remain true, but I now understand that there is considerably more nuance. I reckoned without the reality that it is hard to cry in front of those for whom we hold pastoral responsibility. I learned that it is really hard to sing in the midst of grief. I learned that there is not a lot of space within our liturgies for those who mourn or have experienced traumatic injury. I remember trying to sing the hymns, and stumbling
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel…
How could I sing when my child was dead? Eventually, embarrassed by my tears and unable to find my voice, I fled the sanctuary. There was no place for me there.
It can be troubling to be confronted with life in the mist of death. It was too painful to be surrounded by signs of life – the enjoyment of children playing in the sanctuary, the finely tuned organ, the warm press of comfortable folks – the brightness hurt my tear-stained eyes too much. I was concerned that I would be judged for my grief – as if a pastor should be able to jump to resurrection and skip over the depth of the grief. I now realize that what I needed more than anything was to be in my grief, to at least figuratively wear only black clothes, and cover the mirrors, and let time stop for a while. I needed a place to be alone, or accompanied by others who were also grieving, so I that I could perceive the depth of the abyss that I was staring down. Public worship was not the place. Perhaps, others can find a space there, although I suspect that worship leaders need to do much more work to make enough space for those who grieve or have experienced trauma.
Trauma leads to different responses in different people. For Mary, Mary and Salome, trauma was recent. They had only just witnessed the brutally violent death of their friend Jesus, and were now set about the wholly unpleasant task of anointing his bruised body. The good news comes fast and furious – the stone has already been rolled away and there is a young man telling them not to be alarmed, that Jesus has already gone to Galilee. These amazed and terrified women are instructed to go and tell Peter and the others the good news. Yet they are too deep in their trauma to see what is happening before their eyes. The edges of everything were blurry with salt tears and exhaustion. The women could not receive this good news.
It can be troubling to be confronted with life in the midst of death.
And it can be troubling to be met with hope in the midst of trauma.
And so we are left with an unhappy ending to a story that is meant to have a happy ending.
Jesus is risen! Shouldn’t that be enough to propel the women out of mourning? It is not enough, because the processes of grief must be undertaken. Traumatic wounding does not disappear at the moment of resurrection – the wounds, and fear, persist.
One of the things I love about Mark’s telling of this story is that the narrative itself leaves room for grief and trauma. This ragged ending is not tied up with a pretty bow, there is no resolution. There is a small bunch of silent women whose voices are hushed by the fear that threatens to overwhelm.
Serene Jones reminds us just how unnerving this ending can be…“so unnerving that in the early days of the story’s circulation, other Gospel-tellers decided to add a nicer, more appropriate ending to the tale. We find that ending in the canon we now read. It begins right after this “unending” and is written in a voice that is completely different from Mark’s, but it gives you everything one might want in an ending. Jesus does all the things expected of a risen Lord; he appears to his followers, plans out their future, and allows them to see him ascending in glory to heaven.” Jones notes how much we like our satisfying conclusions.
These women will eventually perceive, discover, accept this good news. They will eventually find their voices, and the brand-new trauma will recede a little so that they are able to see more clearly. In the meantime, it is acceptable for them to be silent in the face of grief and trauma. It is enough for them to step away from a rapidly changing situation and regroup, refresh, reimagine life beyond death. After all, running away from new life seems like an appropriate response in their situation. It was all simply too much to take in.
What is a reader to do? Wait with those terrified women. Step into that space for a moment, as those women huddled together, catching their breath after running a short distance away from the tomb. Jesus was dead. They had seen it with their own eyes. The tomb was rolled away. The body was gone, and they had only the word of this strange young man telling them that Jesus was alive. There is a glimmer of hope but it hasn’t caught fire yet. Right now, they are frustrated. Exhausted. Reliving the events of Friday. Their sacred task has been frustrated. They are not ready to see new life, not yet.
We may not be ready to see new life yet either. As I write this we are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of pandemic. Death is all around us, death that is frequently downplayed or ignored by mainstream media. There is no public mode of grief. As much as we can and should reach for bright spots, there is grieving still to be done. It may be necessary to catch our breath – to rest in the trauma and the uncertainty – before we are able to perceive the new thing that God is doing.
Sarah Travis is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and holds a Doctor of Theology in Preaching from Knox College, University of Toronto. She serves as the minister of Norval Presbyterian Church, and teaches courses in the area of preaching and worship at Knox College, University of Toronto.. Sarah is the author of ‘Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space, Metamorphosis: Preaching after Christendom, and Unspeakable: Preaching and Trauma Informed Theology’ (published by Cascade Books).
 Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (p. 89). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.