Monday, April 1, 2024

A New Robe


Mark 16:1-8

Easter Day / Year B

We just heard the earliest written record describing Jesus’ resurrection.  It is taken from the Gospel of Mark and... it leaves a little bit to be desired.  First and foremost, there is no Jesus.  Second, the women who go to the tomb leave and tell no one.  Then, the entire gospel comes to a close as if someone has torn out the last part of the manuscript.  It is something akin to saying of Jesus’ birth, “Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem and there she had a baby”; with no stall, no manger, no angels, no shepherds, no magi, no star.  We want to say to Mark, “Give us more, please.”  If I was an English teacher and Mark turned this in as a composition, I would mark it with a big, red ‘I’ for incomplete.

Still, there is one detail in this version which the other three gospels do not include.  Only here do we find the mysterious young man dressed in a white robe and sitting in the tomb.  Who is he and why is he here?  And how is it he comes to know Jesus is risen and is the only person in Mark’s gospel to proclaim this good news?

If you flip back a few pages in your bible to chapter 14 you will find an easy to overlook detail from the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus is taken into custody and all the disciples flee:

A certain young man was following Jesus, wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  The arresting party caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.                                    (14:51-52)

Have you ever noticed this character before?  Who is he?  What is he doing following Jesus?  And what is the significance of wearing only a linen cloth?

The lone clue we have comes from the Greek word used to describe the wrap: sindona.  It is only used to describe a type of burial linen.  Symbolically, this young man is clothed with the shroud of death.  That he casts it off, leaves it with the authorities, and runs off naked suggests Jesus is going to take upon himself the death intended for the young man. 

This anonymous young “follower” appears to understand something the disciples never seem to get.  On several occasions Jesus tells them he must die, but each time either they reprimand him, change the subject, or remain silent.  This young man – who some scholars say may be Mark himself – becomes the first person saved by Jesus.  But who he actually is, why he follows Jesus, and to where he flees are subjects not addressed in the text. 

We might be inclined to forget about him altogether if it were not for his second appearance in the narrative four days later.  When the woman go to the tomb to finish the burial work so hastily begun on the Friday before the Passover, they encounter the same young man sitting in the open tomb where Jesus had been buried.  He is now dressed in a “white” robe (a word used in only one other place – in the story of the Transfiguration where Jesus’ clothes become radiant white).  The person who once wore the shroud of death is now clothed with a royal garment symbolizing the new life of the Resurrection. 

This bit player in the grand narrative of Mark’s gospel is given the role to make the greatest announcement in human history:

“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.”

The young man directs the women to go and tell the disciples Jesus will meet them in Galilee.  They flee the tomb in terror and amazement (literally in trauma and ecstasy) but say nothing to anyone about what they have seen because they are afraid.  And with this Mark’s gospel comes to an unsatisfying end.  Most bibles include two possible alternative endings, but note both are not original, rather added some time later by well-meaning editors who want to give the story a proper ending.

So what are we to make of this young man?  Keep in mind the gospel writers are not as concerned about actual history as they are with meaning.  They feel free to play around with the details of an event in order to explain its significance.  Jesus himself holds to this approach.  It matters not to him he turns water into wine, what is important to him is what it means.  After he feeds the 5,000 he is critical of those who follow him merely because they want to be fed but are not able to discern the deeper implications he is the Bread of Life.

So this young man may be an actual person or he may be only a literary device – perhaps Mark inserting himself into a historical moment where he was not actually present in order to spell out with more clarity the implications of what has taken place.  What has taken place is this: Jesus is risen and has removed from us the shroud of death and clothed us with the robe of the power of the resurrection.

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