“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” It was as though those few words grabbed the affable Bert Marshall by the lapel of his tunic and pulled him into the gravitational sphere of a narrative that is both deeply familiar and utterly strange, even shocking. For the next two hours the unfolding story seemed to be a presence of its own in the darkened Great Room of Goodrich Hall at Williams – with Marshall not so much telling it as circumnavigating it, transfixed in its mystery, and with the audience held too in the field of attraction.
Maybe the particular energy of the evening was released by the fusion of the familiar and the unknown. Most people know the basic trajectory of the story – from the fishermen leaving their nets to follow, to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, to the ominous political/religious rumblings and the gruesome death. But no one knows who “Mark” really was. No one knows why this gospel was written – or when – or for whom. No one knows why it ends in the quite particular way that it does. And no one knows why it is that the narrative seems to be charged with astonishment – why the storyteller seems not to know where it’s leading, why he startles himself with the word “immediately” time and time again when the Mystery touches down in the middle of ordinary life.
On the other hand, just about everybody knows Bert Marshall – or is getting to know him – or should. He’s been the pastor of the Congregational Church in Lee for almost a decade. Before that he was a dairy farmer, an innkeeper, a truck driver, and a rock and roll musician. Maybe its not so much the story that’s holy or the text that’s sacred so much as it is the meeting of the familiar and the mysterious, the confluence of the known and the unknowable.
Bert is a commanding figure, even when he’s in the thrall of an ancient story whose power dwarfs him. And for the most part he keeps the magnitude of his achievement with this material backstage. But every so often it occurs to you to marvel at the sheer audacity of it: how he took a three month sabbatical, a year or so ago, and made a kind of pilgrimage to Halifax, Nova Scotia – where he rented an apartment and proceded to memorize every word of the 16 chapters of text. Along the way, he also seems to have swallowed great quantities of humanity, hope and light – because they all come tumbling out as he tells the story. As you watch and listen, you feel as though you’re meeting a new friend you’ve known forever – or, as theologian Marcus Borg has it, “meeting Jesus again for the first time.”.
The shock of the ending of the Gospel of Mark is perhaps its most striking feature. To me the broken, fragmentary ending is one of the holiest moments I know in all of literature:
When [the three women] looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 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. 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.’ 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.
Actually the Greek text is even more abrupt: it reads, more or less literally, “…and they fled from the tomb, for trembling and amazement siezed them – and no one nothing they told, afraid because – ” Why? What urgent need or fear compelled the author to drop the pen before telling us what to make of the astonishing news that terrified them in the midst of death? Bert Marshall simply let the word fall – “because…” – and then paused, waiting to see what the silence after it fell sounded like. Then he walked from the stage, leaving the broken piece of story stuck in our minds. Exactly as was intended from the beginning – “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”