The Athenaeum Portrait (c. 1796)
by Gilbert Stuart
public domain

Easter Sunday, Mark 16:1-8

Historical Description:

If The Athenaeum Portrait (c. 1796) by Gilbert Stuart looks familiar, it might have something to do with the fact that you’ve seen a reproduction of it almost every day of your adult life.  A slightly revamped version of it graces the front of every American one-dollar bill.

The painting was never finished in Stuart’s lifetime. First-time viewers naturally conjure up theories about what happened to keep the artist from putting the final strokes on this canvas: maybe the artist died, or perhaps there was a paint shortage in 1796, and the artist simply ran out of his medium, thus leaving us in the lurch about what exactly the President was wearing that day and what symbolic object he may have held in his hand. The truth is a bit stranger than most of the theories.  To the ire of many, Stuart did not want the portrait finished.  Not only could an unfinished portrait stay in his possession, it could also be used to make dozens of replicas (around seventy before he died) in which the details, such as Washington’s aforementioned attire, could be endlessly reimagined.

Devotional Reflection:

The Athenaeum Portrait has one important feature in common with our Gospel text for today: both give the unmistakable impression of incompleteness.  Granted, in the case of our Gospel lesson the essential scenery is all there: the crucified is proclaimed as risen, the tomb is there sans body, the angel is heralding and witnesses have been told to pass the word on.  But just as the three-quarters of vacant canvas around Washington’s head bespeaks an unfinished masterpiece, so too does Mark’s famous, perhaps infamous, ending, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Certain scholars have their conspiracy theories.  Perhaps we lost a page.  Maybe Mark wasn’t sure how to bring it to a close.  Maybe it was those meddling scribes we keep hearing about from that Ehrman fellow.  No doubt, such theories fail to give credit where credit is due. Those who have tracked with the kerygmatic artistry of this evangelical lion from chapter one onward would offer a more satisfying response to the seemingly unresolved coda:  this is not some cruel twist of history or a bumbling author; this is ancient ellipsis.

Questions abound in the space where a period should be . . . Did the women talk about what had so unnerved and disoriented them about the empty tomb?  Did they conquer the fear and trembling to do as the angel commanded?  If so, how did the twelve receive it?  In what ways were they, in turn, transformed (or upended) by the awesome news that Jesus Christ, crucified, is risen – that resurrection happened?

Obviously, we are able to answer many such questions from other sources.  But maybe, just maybe, Mark purposely left this part of his canvas empty – a standing invitation to imagine for ourselves the implications and affects of hearing the Easter news.  Perhaps we have here an invitation to ask how we might have responded, should that first proclamation have reached our ears; an invitation to feel our own heads spinning as we hurry away from the tomb.

Above all, maybe Mark’s Gospel is left intentionally unfinished because the story isn’t over.  The empty stretch of canvas stares back at us as a reminder that until Christ comes to put the full stop on this history that began, “In the beginning,” the story continues to and beyond – soli Deo gloria – our stories.  That empty space is a place to find ourselves, taken up in Word and Sacrament into the wondrous, strange, world-transforming portrayal of the one “who was handed over for our transgression and raised for our justification.”

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed…

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