Hollywood Ending

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April 5, 2015

Hollywood Ending

Passage: Mark 16:1–8

The Gospel According to Mark Ch. 16, New Revised Standard Version

 1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 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]

The Shorter Ending of Mark

[[And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And after­ward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable procla­mation of eternal salvation.]]

The Longer Ending of Mark

[[9 Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, be­cause they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the mes­sage by the signs that accompanied it.]]


I hate paperbacks. This puts me at odds with everybody else in my book discussion groups, who tell me that hardcovers are called ‘hard’ for a reason: they’re hard to pay for and hard to pack in your carry-on for the airplane. I tell them that hardcovers are twice as beautiful and last four times as long.

 Here’s a copy of my English Literature anthology from college. It’s a little beat up; the cover is coming off, and pretty soon the last page will disappear with it. What if we lost the last page of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, one of the best ever: “for the growing good of the world is partly owing to unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill between you and me as they might have been is half-owing to people who lived faithfully a hidden life, and [now] rest in unvisited graves.”[2]

And look: here’s a copy of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws. Look how beat up it is. Okay, so it’s not in the same league with Middlemarch. Still, you might want to read it again if the movie’s too scary.

Unfortunately, it appears as if St. Mark might have originally published his brief Jesus biography as a paperback, maybe literally and maybe figuratively. The very first Gospel of Mark, of course, probably wasn’t a book at all, but a scroll, which was made up of several sheets of parchment—or animal skin—probably about the size of our own standard 8½ x 11copy paper, pasted together and rolled up. Look: here’s a scroll of last week’s sermon. You can see why I don’t use a scroll to preach my sermons.

You can also see why about a hundred years after Mark first wrote his Gospel, Christians abandoned the scroll and started stacking leaves of parchment on top of one another, folding them in the center, and stitching them together down the crease.   It was called a codex, an early book. Sometimes they bound the pages under wooden or leather covers, sometimes not. A codex was easier to use than a scroll but just as fragile. Both were like paperbacks: after years of use, the first thing you’d lose would be the first and the last pages.

It’s possible that that is just what happened to the Gospel of Mark, because it appears to be missing its last page. Let’s look at the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Let me read you the last page of the Gospel of Mark.

That’s where the original Gospel of Mark ends. Now, some ancient copies of the book of Mark have what is called the Shorter Ending, and other ancient copies have what is called the Longer Ending, but the oldest and most reliable copies lack either ending and stop after verse 8.

Not only that, but these probably spurious endings, with words that don’t seem to have been in Mark’s vocabulary otherwise, and in very un-Mark-like style, don’t sound like Mark at all. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to figure this out; even you and I can see the difference. Go ahead and read them; not now, when you get home.

But you see what happened, don’t you? I’ll read it again, the last verse of Mark’s original Gospel, according to the most reliable early manuscripts: “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone.” Is that any way to end the Good News Gospel of our Glad God? Is that any kind of a resurrection story?

Listen to the way Mark piles up, heap on heap, the ugly, sinister, negative words: ‘Fled,’ ‘Terror,’ ‘Amazement,’ ‘Seized,’ ‘Dead Silence’ (and I do mean Dead), ‘they said nothing to no one’, and, last but not least, ‘Afraid.’ Yes, I am afraid I must report that the last word in Mark’s Gospel is ‘afraid.’

The last line of Mark’s Gospel just cries out for an ellipsis. You know what an ellipsis is, don’t you? The punctuation mark—dot-dot-dot, three sequential periods—that means ‘to be continued,’‘Stay tuned,’ ‘it ain’t over yet,’ or ‘Something’s missing.’

Is that any way to conclude a Gospel? I think not. In this Easter story the Risen Jesus never even shows up. The last we see of him in this Gospel is when Joseph of Arimathea takes his battered body down from the cross, wraps it in a shroud of linen, lays it in a tomb of rock, and locks that tomb up with a stone the size of a Mini Cooper.

There is no encounter with Mary Magdalene in the cemetery where he gently speaks her name, nor gathering in the Upper Room so that Doubting Thomas can touch his wounded hands, nor breakfast on the beach with Peter so that Jesus can forgive him for denying him three times, as in John.

There is no walk on the Road to Emmaus with those two heart-broken disciples, as in Luke.

There is no Great Commission on the top of a mountain where Jesus gently promises “Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age,” as in Matthew.

There is nothing. Literally. Nothing: just an absence, just an empty grave, and a discarded shroud. Someone once said that Mark’s Easter story “aches with the melancholy of absence.”[3] I like the way he puts that: aches with the melancholy of absence.

The conclusion to Mark’s Gospel cries out for an ellipsis, so that Mark is, quite literally, the elliptical Gospel—elliptical in the sense of ‘incomplete,’ or ‘marked by excessive economy of words,’ but also ‘deliberately obscure or enigmatic or evasive.’ The word ‘ellipsis’ derives, you see, from a Greek word that means ‘to leave out,’ ‘to fall short,’ ‘to omit.’ What was Mark doing?

In my Connecticut Church I was leading a Bible Study on Mark’s Gospel one time, and one of my students gathered the courage to say, “If Mark were the only Gospel we had, I don’t think I’d believe in the resurrection.” She’s right about that, no?

Is that any way to end a Gospel? I think not. Neither did the early secretaries who first copied Mark’s Gospel. They said, “This is terrible. This story needs a fitting conclusion, so I’m going to give it one.” And so they slapped these perfunctory, haphazard, almost certainly spurious conclusions on the Gospel to correct Mark’s glaring oversight.

Now, what did Mark want us to read? There are four possibilities. Mark’s ending is either (1) Short, (2) Long, (3) Incomplete, or (4) Intentionally Abrupt.

First, it’s possible that Mark closed off his Gospel with “The Shorter Ending,” but I doubt it; it’s terrible.

Second, it’s possible that Mark concluded his Gospel with “The Longer Ending,” also printed in your bulletins, but I doubt that too; it’s a little better than the shorter ending, but it’s not Mark’s.

The third possibility is more promising: Maybe the original ending to Mark’s Gospel is lost, interrupted, or incomplete. That is to say, maybe the little book or scroll Mark originally left behind was unintentionally abbreviated. Maybe he intended to finish it but never got around to it or was interrupted. Maybe he died before he was finished, like Mozart with his Requiem, leaving the conclusion to hacks like Sussmayer who could never live up to the original author.

Or maybe he finished his Gospel but we lost it. Maybe Mark’s first Gospel was a paperback book, literally or figuratively, and maybe we lost the last page, worn away by the use and abuse of the ages, finally torn off in the end and lost forever.

There’s a fourth and final possibility, of course. It’s possible that the ending to Mark’s Gospel is Intentionally Abrupt and Unfinished. It really did end like this: “The women fled from the tomb; terror and amazement seized them, they said nothing to no one, for they were afraid…   Dot-Dot-Dot. Ellipsis. The Elliptical Gospel.

Maybe we should do without the Hollywood endings later hacks slapped onto Mark’s Gospel. You know what I mean by Hollywood endings, don’t you? Hollywood, as you know, is in sunny California, and that’s quite to the point, because Hollywood endings are always sunny and cheery.

A Hollywood ending is when a bronzed, Versace-sunglass-wearing movie mogul fears that the grim ending of his source material won’t play well in exit polls of preview audiences, so he gives his movie a happy ending.

Now, to its credit, Hollywood sometimes honors its source material. At least the ship still sinks in Titanic and the doomed ape dies in King Kong.

But remember Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws? Ah, 1975. I was in high school. I took my first girlfriend to Jaws on our first date. I was such a romantic. But what a great first date movie, huh? No 17-year-old girl could sit through that first scene without grabbing her date’s arm and hanging on for two hours till Robert Shaw disappears down the maw of that mechanical shark.

How elated were you when Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper unexpectedly pops up uneaten above the waves in that mangled shark cage?

You know what happens to Richard Dreyfuss/Matt Hooper in the book, don’t you?   I quote: “The shark bit down, and the last thing Hooper saw before he died was that black eye gazing at him through a cloud of his own blood.”[4] Steven Spielberg slapped a Hollywood ending on Peter Benchley’s novel.

Or how about the Robert Redford film The Natural from 1984? In the film, Roy Hobbs resists the temptation to enrich himself by throwing the game and hits a herculean home run that explodes the lights and he triumphantly circles the bases under a shower of sparks like a fireworks display.

Do you know how Bernard Malamud originally wrote the story: Roy takes the bribe; Wonderboy the Magic Bat, Roy’s Excalibur, splits in two; Roy strikes out with a roar; there is a wail in the wind; and, next day, a newsboy hands him a headline about the scandal, and implores, “Say it ain’t true, Roy.”[5]

Hollywood Endings aren’t limited to Hollywood, of course. The best Hollywood ending of them all predated Hollywood by 200 years. You read King Lear in college, right? Everybody dies, even the good guys, especially the good guys. Even Cordelia. People couldn’t take it, not beloved, loyal Cordelia.

For a hundred years the play was an absolute failure at the box office because it was too grim. Finally in 1681 Nahum Tate gave it a happy ending in which Lear survives and reclaims his throne, Edgar and Cordelia get married, and all live happily ever after. And then the play just took off. People loved it.

You know what I think? I think we need to learn to live without these Hollywood Endings as in Mark’s early Sussmayers slapped onto his Gospel.   The ending to Mark’s Gospel is deliberately elliptical. We didn’t lose the last page of Mark’s Gospel. Mark never intended for us to see the Risen Christ. That doesn’t mean Christ isn’t risen; Mark means to tell a resurrection story; the body’s not here; perhaps it is alive!

Mark doesn’t mean that Christ isn’t risen; it just means he doesn’t show up at the end of this Gospel. There are no glad reunions. There are no decisive epiphanies. There are no messianic, magisterial instructions to the disciples or the women. There is only an empty grave, a conspicuous absence, a yawning chasm.

Oh, and one more thing: a promise. “He is not here; he has gone before you to Galilee; there you will meet him.” That’s all we get: hints, guesses, suggestions of resurrection, nothing more than mere intimations of immortality. An absence—“he is not here”—and a promise—“he’s gone ahead of you to Galilee.” That’s all we get, but it’s enough.

I know he’s not dead when I see the witness of history’s brave saints and heroes and martyrs, who feared God more than they feared death: Stephen and Peter and Bonhoeffer and King and Abraham Lincoln, who was shot on April 14, a Good Friday; and who died on April 15, Silent Saturday; but whose achievements will never be erased from the human record.

When the President finally died at 7:21 on Saturday morning, Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Four years earlier, Secretary Stanton, then a lawyer from Ohio, scoffed at the idea that this rail-splitter from Kentucky, this self-educated, country lawyer from Springfield, could ever be elected to the White House. Mr. Stanton once called Mr. Lincoln “a long-armed ape.” Then, at the end: “Now he belongs to the ages.” The President’s clarion call of freedom echoes more thunderously in death than it ever did in life.

I know Jesus is alive, though I haven’t seen him, when I watch the likes of you, God’s faithful people. “Christ plays in 10,000 places,” says the poet Hopkins, “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.”[6] Christ plays in 10,000 places: I know he is alive when I watch you enfold in loving embrace the heart-broken, the wounded, the lonely, and the afraid. We are not delivered from our chemotherapy treatments or our oncology wards or our funeral parlors or our cemeteries, but we do not have to go there alone. All we get is an absence and a promise and a human presence, and it is enough.

I watch beloved friends die bravely in the unflinching hope that they are going home to God, and though I have not seen Jesus, I know he is not there, in that cemetery. I know he’s somewhere, somewhere ahead of me.

You see, there’s an advantage to an elliptical Gospel. In a Gospel which ends with an ellipsis, which means ‘To be continued,’ we get to finish the story. Yes, you see, in the Elliptical Gospel, you and I are agents of resurrection.   “Go, tell his disciples that he has gone before you to Galilee,” said the white-robed messenger at the mouth of Jesus’ empty grave.   Go to Galilee, where it all started. Go to Galilee where he called you from your fishing nets. Go back to the everyday world where you live your little lives. There you will find him turning water into wine. There you will find him turning a little lunch into a banquet for five thousand. There you will find him giving sight to the blind and running limbs to the lame and a second chance to the wicked.

Friends, you are agents of resurrection. Go to Galilee and complete the ellipsis: Dot-Dot-Dot. How’s it going to end? How in the world is it ever going to end?




[1] Some of the most ancient authorities bring the book to a close at the end of verse 8. One authority concludes the book with the shorter ending; others include the shorter ending and then continue with verses 9-20. In most authorities verses 9-20 follow immediately after verse 8, though in some of these authorities the passage is marked as being doubtful.


            [2]George Eliot, the concluding lines to her novel Middlemarch.

            [3]Nick Cave, quoted by Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills (New York: Nan A. Talese Doubleday, 1999), p. 110.

            [4]Slightly adapted from Peter Benchley, Jaws (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1974), p. 258.

            [5]Bernard Malamud, The Natural (New York: Perennial Classics, 2000), pp. 208-219.

            [6]Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame,” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, eds. W. H. Gardner & N. H. MacKenzie (London: Oxford, 1967), p. 90.