Revd Canon Jonathan Baker looks at the account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St Mark’s Gospel, as depicted in a painting by Bartolomeo Schedoni,
The Resurrection according to St Mark and Bartolomeo Schedoni
Today we are looking at the account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St Mark’s Gospel, and our artistic conversation partner is a man called Bartolomeo Schedoni, who painted the picture reproduced on your order of service in 1613. He died young, possibly committing suicide because of his debts, and leaving only a handful of paintings. But they are very dramatic and powerful, and this one, entitled ‘The Two Mary’s’, is the perfect partner for Mark’s account of the resurrection. Although it’s called ‘The Two Mary’s,’ there are in fact three women. This fits with Mark’s Gospel, which tells us that the women concerned were Mary Magdalene – who can be identified in the picture by her red dress and loose hair - Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Where the other Gospels have angels interpreting the significance of the empty tomb, Mark has a young man in a white robe. Schedoni tries to play it both ways, because his otherwise very human young man in white is sporting some very incongruous feathered wings, which presumably are meant to tell us that this is in fact an angelic messenger.
Both the Gospel and the painting convey a tremendous sense of drama. Mark sets it at dawn on the first day of the week, just as the sun had risen. There is anxiety – who will roll away the stone for us? There is mystery, for the stone – which was very large – had already been rolled back. How can this be? There is the shock of seeing this young man sitting there, a figure Mark does not explain but who appears to be in complete control of the situation. The women are alarmed, despite being told not to be, and they flee from the tomb in terror and amazement, for the message they have been given seems incomprehensible, the enormity of it is too much to take in. For Mark, the message of Christ’s resurrection is not straightforward good news; it’s disorientating, bewildering, even destabilising. If Christ is risen, then who is he? If it is possible for someone to come back from the dead, then what kind of world are we living in? So the women at the empty tomb are overwhelmed by a sense of their lives and their world being turned upside down and inside out. Their response is to want to run away and hide.
Schedoni conveys something of this mystery, of a truth being revealed that is too big to take in. His painting is very dramatic. We have extremes of light and shadow, juxtaposed in sharp contrast to one another. We have blocks of colour in the women’s robes which stand in contrast to the brilliant white of the young man on the left. We have the women looking in different directions – one looking down for Jesus’ body, the other two looking at the angel, but from different angles, whilst the angel points away – not just upwards to indicate that Jesus is risen, but his hand actually disappearing off the edge of the picture, as if indicating to us that Jesus’ body is now a heavenly body, no longer belonging to this world. And look at the posture of the women’s bodies; their faces are in shadow, so their feelings are conveyed by postures; mouths are open and arms spread wide to express shock, astonishment, questioning. And look at the light. Where is it coming from? There is one light source off to the right, casting a strong light onto the backs of the women and the face of the angel. But behind the angel there seems to be a cloud of glory, suggesting a window of heavenly light in the direction towards which the angel is pointing. There’s more to this than just a missing body.
So the painting conveys something of the drama of the passage. But I also said that it speaks of mystery. Look at the composition. Broadly speaking, the picture is given its shape by two diagonal lines. One line travels down from the top left of the picture, down the angel’s arm and body towards his foot, and reinforced by the light catching the edge of the lid of the tomb. The other line travels down from the top right, from the face of Mary Magdalene through the jar of ointment and the head of the kneeling woman to the tip of her extended left arm. The eye is drawn to the place where these two diagonal lines nearly meet, to the centre of the composition. These lines ought to enclose the focal point of attention for the figures in the painting, and for us, the viewers. But what do we see? Nothing at all. Only shadows and darkness. Where we ought to be able to see the empty tomb and the reason for all this surprise and drama, we see only nothingness. The angel is sitting on a tomb, which presumably doesn’t belong to Jesus as it still has its lid on it. He’s holding the lid which has come off the top of Jesus’ tomb. But of the tomb itself we see only the merest hint, the slightest suggestion of its horizontal edge. The cause of all this drama and excitement is a vision of emptiness. The heavenly light and the pointing angel speak of the presence of God. But the darkness at the heart of this picture speaks of a God who is revealed through absence. And this is one of the great themes of Mark’s Gospel. It’s in Mark where Jesus’ fame spreads everywhere, even though he repeatedly orders people not to tell anyone what he has done. It’s in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus dies on the cross saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In dying he is conscious only of God’s absence. But in dying to take away the sins of the world, he is making God present.
You’re probably aware that there is great uncertainty about the ending of Mark’s Gospel. The earliest manuscripts all end at the point where our reading ends, verse 8, with the women resolved to ‘say nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ If that was where Mark intended his Gospel to end, it was a very strange decision – the women running away in fear is an odd way to emphasise the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Clearly some early scribe agreed, because a longer ending has been added, which in my Bible consists of verses 9-20. And this rounds things off and tidies up the ending of the Gospel. But it’s not original. It was added later. And scholars debate what happened. Did Mark get interrupted, or did he die, did he intend to finish at verse 8, or was the original ending lost?
To my mind this last suggestion seems the most likely. In an age when books were written on scrolls, it would be the beginnings and the endings of texts which were most vulnerable to damage, and that’s probably what happened to Mark’s Gospel. So in this particular bit of the Word of God, there is literally an absence, even as it bears witness to the resurrection of Jesus. And so in the painting, not only is there no Jesus, but where he was last seen is just darkness.
So there is ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the ending of the Gospel. There is also ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the testimony of the witnesses. One of the themes in Mark’s Gospel is that of ‘Discipleship Failure’; the disciples are frequently presented as weak and muddled, misunderstanding who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. And it’s not clear whether this passage affirms the women as the first witnesses of the resurrection, or whether it subtly criticises them; the angel tells them not to be alarmed, but they run away in terror. He orders them to ‘go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee,’ but ‘they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ – but since we have the story, presumably it eventually got out. The women are given a task, to tell a message of good news, but as far as we know they ran away, silent and afraid.
So the story is shot through with ambiguity. We have an empty tomb, but where is Jesus? We have an angelic witness saying, ‘He is not here, he has been raised,’ but we don’t actually see him. If he’s not here, where is he? At least with a body you have something tangible. But as the painting suggests, at the centre of this story is a sense that God is revealed in absence.
This is spiritually significant. Even if the ending of the Gospel is not what Mark intended, it’s all we have with which to hear God’s Word. So Mark’s resurrection offers us a spirituality of ambiguity and incompleteness. That may not suit us when we’re looking for concrete answers, for clarity and certainty and closure, but it fits with the way life often is. Perhaps we may be especially aware of that in the context of this Healing Service. We may be conscious of our frailty and helplessness. We may have sought God’s healing, but feel conscious only of his absence. Nevertheless that absence may actually be the way he is present, just as the empty tomb was a sign of Christ’s risen presence in the world. So we may experience this spirituality of incompleteness in our prayer life. Most prayers don’t get the answers we want. This can be frustrating and puzzling. Yet still we pray and still we intercede for others and still we look for signs of Christ’s presence. Sometimes the problem is that our focus is in the wrong place. In the passage the women are asking ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ That question is never answered, because it’s overtaken by a much bigger question, which is ‘Where is Jesus?’ Sometimes we need to focus less on the immediate little questions, and more on the big question – Where is Jesus?
We may experience incompleteness in our vision. The angel says ‘He is not here,’ and that confirms our experience. Jesus isn’t where we are looking. There is no Jesus in Schedoni’s picture. But that doesn’t mean he is not risen. It’s simply that the women are looking in the wrong place and for the wrong thing. They’re looking for a dead body, and they’re looking into the shadows of the tomb. They’re not looking where the angel is pointing. And all they are hearing is ‘He is not here,’ and they are failing to hear ‘He has been raised.’ So with us. Sometimes our canvas is too small, and our vision is too narrow. Sometimes we’re just looking in the wrong direction or hearing only what we want to hear and we’re screening out the rest. And we don’t notice the glory which is there, heaven dawning in the corner of the picture.
Sometimes we experience incompleteness in our theological understanding. The women have experienced the empty tomb and they’ve heard the message of the resurrection, but they don’t know how to process this information or make sense of it – they’re dazed and unsure what to do or think. That’s not a bad picture of Christian life; Christians pray instinctively, not because they’ve thought it through beforehand and can answer all the questions one might have about prayer. We pray in response to God’s Spirit prompting us, but often we don’t know why or how, or have a clue about how God might respond or what the outcome might be. But that very incompleteness invites us to trust. Precisely because we don’t have all the answers, precisely because we sense the presence of the risen Lord only occasionally and incompletely, precisely because we’re not sure whether he’s really there, we are invited into a deeper trust in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit by whom Jesus was raised, but also the Spirit of fulfilment and completion, the Spirit of the now and the not yet of God’s Kingdom, the Spirit who brings God’s future into our present. So as we place ourselves and our own needs and weaknesses into his hands, we are empowered to improvise the missing last scene. The women ran away, afraid. But the story didn’t end there. Initially they told no-one. But we remember them as the first apostles, the first witnesses of the resurrection, entrusted with telling others about it.
So we are called to face an uncertain future trusting in the promise that Christ is risen, and in the sense that our own emptiness points towards something more, something fuller and deeper. We stand alongside the Marys and Salome and live with the same questions which confronted them.
- Where is Jesus going ahead of you and waiting to meet you?
- Where is Jesus calling you to meet him? In this person or in that situation? Is he there, waiting for you to look in the right direction?
- Who is Jesus asking us to speak to, and to tell of the new life he offers?
- What tasks does he have for you and me, tasks we can accomplish because he goes both ahead of us and alongside us?
The ambiguity and incompleteness of Mark’s Gospel needn’t be a problem. It can deepen our trust, draw us closer to the Lord, and help us to grow into a greater God-given sense of freedom and responsibility, as he entrusts us with making the good news of the resurrection known in our own situations, in our own way. He takes us seriously. He’s entrusted us with his story. He waits for us to catch up with him. And as we follow, so the light of his glory dawns.
Jonathan Baker, Canon Missioner, Peterborough Cathedral