One of the holy men named Philagrius lived in Jerusalem and laboured to earn himself enough to eat. And when he was standing in the market-square trying to sell what he had made, by chance a bag fell on the ground near him, containing a great many shillings. The old man found it, and stood there thinking, “The loser must soon come here.” And soon the man who had lost it came lamenting. So Philagrius took him apart and gave him back his bag. The owner asked him to accept some of the shillings, but the old man would have nothing. Then the owner began to shout and call: “Come and see what the man of God has done.” But the old man fled away unperceived, and went out of the town, so that they should not know what he had done, nor pay him honour.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Abba Philagrius demonstrates well the admonition of Christ,
Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. (Matthew 6:2-4)
Not wanting the praise of men for his reward, Abba Philagrius fled, knowing that praise can induce pride, and pride destroys compassion and humility, which are better than any material reward.
There is something else about this story, however, that I find insightful.
In the Gospels, especially the Gospel according to St. Mark, Jesus himself can be secretive. In Mark, this is a recurring theme. For example:
Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.”
Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Mark 1:40-44)
And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, “You are the Son of God.” But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known. (Mark 3:11-12)
Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, “Who do men say that I am?”
So they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”
Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him. (Mark 8:27-30)
Why does Jesus keep telling people not to talk about him? I get that he might not want the witness of “unclean spirits,” but what about the people that he healed? What about St. Peter’s confession, the bedrock of the Christian faith? Under what circumstances should people keep silent about these things?
Well, as Abba Philagrius reminds us, humility comes first. Jesus doesn’t want the people he healed to bring crowds to gather and praise him because he is humble and does not wish to give that up. Indeed, being humility incarnate, he cannot give that up.
Jesus does not tell St. Peter to go spread the word because he hadn’t yet suffered on the cross and risen again. Many of the Jewish people at the time were hoping for the Messiah or Christ to be a political revolutionary. Jesus did not want to be associated with such radicalism.
In fact, in St. Mark’s Gospel, the very next story forms the middle point of one giant chiasm. Chi is the Greek letter X. A chiasm is a literary devise in which elements are arranged for a parallelism where the initial terms and the corresponding terms appear in opposite order. For example:
Putting the two progressions on top of each other makes a X shape, hence the term chiasm. Critical to chiasms are the first and last terms (so A and A’ in the figure above) and the middle term (C), which has no corresponding term. C is the focal point, and A and A’ are the essential frame.
Notice that, despite the fact that in Matthew and Luke St. Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” in Mark he just says, “You are the Christ.” This is because St. Mark structures his whole Gospel around a chiasm that focus on the title of “Son of God” for Jesus.
The pattern is not without exceptions (it is better executed in Luke), such as the passage above where the unclean spirits also call Jesus the Son of God, but one can still discern the following chiasm:
Theophany (the baptism of Christ), where a voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son.”
Transfiguration, where a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son.”
The Cross, where the soldier who pierces the side of Christ with his lance and sees the blood and water flow from the wound declares, “Truly this was the [or a] Son of God!”
Just following the transfiguration, we find a mirror story to St. Peter’s confession.
Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. (Mark 8:9-10)
Notice again how Jesus tells them not to tell people about him. And then a reason is given: they still don’t get why he came. They don’t understand the resurrection yet. They can’t fathom the idea that Jesus would die the shameful death of the cross.
In Matthew and Luke this is more pronounced. Jesus gives St. Peter his name, which means rock, in response to his confession. Then when they come down from the mountain, Jesus tells them he must suffer and die and rise again, and St. Peter says, “May this never be!” So Jesus responds by calling him a stumbling stone, playing on the name he had just given him beforehand.
All this is to say, there is a whole lot of not talking about things in the Gospel of Mark, and I think the idea of secrecy for the sake of humility sheds some light on the very end of that book, on what comes after the resurrection.
Depending on the manuscript tradition, Mark may have a short, medium, or long ending. Most scholars believe that the short ending is more likely original, though that does not prevent us from revering the others as equally sacred.
The short ending goes like this:
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8)
Now, these myrrh-bearing women are the subject of continual praise in the Orthodox Church. We sing hymns in their honor probably every Sunday. But here, it doesn’t seem like they did the right thing, does it?
In all the other Gospels, and in the long ending of Mark, they seemingly go and tell people the good news, the Gospel that Christ is risen, just as the young man (or angel) tells them to do. Here, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end.
First of all, it is worth noting that in addition to adding better endings to St. Mark’s Gospel, the Church also recasts this passage through the paschal liturgy. This reading is the Orthros Gospel. After the priest finishes it and everyone says, “Glory to you, O Lord! Glory to you!” the faithful erupt into the resurrection hymn: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” So though the women are silent and afraid, we speak boldly and witness to the resurrection.
Fair enough. But secondly, St. Mark actually never says why the women were afraid nor whether they stayed silent forever.
Some speculate, quite rightly I’m sure, that all the secrecy in Mark has to do with the state of Christians in the time it was written, a time of great persecution. They had to meet secretly, early in the morning or very late at night. They didn’t want anyone to blow their cover to the Roman officials who could lock them up or worse just for being Christians.
So if you found out about Jesus at that time, you were supposed to keep it on the down low, so to speak. So the fear of the women may be highlighted to help readers (or more likely hearers, due to low literacy at the time) relate to the story and get the message of how to respond.
But I don’t think that exhausts the potential meaning here. Might the women be afraid for a more noble reason? Maybe it wasn’t out of self-preservation—though that is not necessarily ignoble—but out of humility.
Abba Philagrius does something wonderful, but then he flees so that no one will know and praise him. Maybe the women, despite their delight and joy at the young man’s words, also had enough sense not to exploit this good news for their own advantage. Instead, they waited until the time was right, until their own hearts were right, and then they told the Apostles. Indeed, this would go with the theme of secrecy—early Christians clear valued being witnesses, but they had to be prudent about who and when to tell about Jesus.
Perhaps, then, the women’s fear is fear of pride, fear of praise, fear of taking such a precious pearl and throwing it before swine. Perhaps that fear is their humility teaching them to be prudent in word and deed. Perhaps they, in their silence and secrecy, understood far more than a casual reading of the text might seem to indicate. Perhaps those who fail at the end of this text are not they, but we who do not see their secrecy as a sign of success.
And if so, what a success it was!—Even today they have managed to conceal their humility to most who read or hear these words, a secret kept for two thousand years by them and St. Mark together, the secret value of humility that is an eternal reward far better than all the praises of this world combined.