Friday, March 15, 2013

Death of the Messiah: Mark’s Gospel: Conclusion

2013 03 10 Death of the Messiah, Part 5,
Mark’s Gospel: Conclusion

Continuing with Mark’s description of the Passion, we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross. The title, "King of the Jews" is mockingly nailed to the Cross; but Mark does not see it as an ironic symbol, but rather calls it "a charge against him."  Mark knows Jesus made no such claim.

For the first three hours no human being shows Jesus the slightest sympathy, not the soldiers, nor the crowd, nor the passers-by, nor the chief priests and scribes who came to watch the spectacle. All mocked him, telling him to save Himself and come down from the cross, if he be the Messiah. Even both of the bandits crucified with him taunted him. Mark knows of no repentant thief.  And, more importantly, not one of his disciples came to the cross to be with him in his last hours.

Mark, who often aligns things in threes, divides the time on the cross into three periods.  They crucify him at 9 in the morning, darkness overcomes the land at noon, and at 3 in the afternoon Jesus dies.  So, for three hours he is subject to human insult and derision. And then even nature seemed to abandon him, as the sun was overcome by darkness for the next three hours.  And in the darkness Jesus hung there alone, abandoned by all who ever claimed to love him.  And through it all there was the exquisite, unbearable pain of crucifixion.

Finally, mercifully, it is over, as, at 3 o'clock, Jesus cries out with a loud voice the only words Mark reports:  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  These words are not new to Jesus.  They are the anguished opening words to Psalm 22. We should not try to soften these words, as hard as it might be for us to believe that Jesus could possibly feel abandoned by his own Father.  The words are there; God wants us to hear them.  Shortly thereafter Jesus lets out a loud cry, not of words, just of agony, and dies.  Jesus dies, alone, abandoned by his friends, seemingly abandoned by God.  Mark is quite clear that Jesus thought God had forsaken him.

This made the later Gospel writers very nervous, even as it might make some of us nervous now.  To the other Gospel writers for Jesus to feel forsaken and alone was a sign of human weakness, and they feared that humanity in Jesus. They would rather that the Son of God appear to be strong and in control, and, certainly, in complete contact with the Father at all times. And so they changed the final scene considerably from what Mark reports.

Their fear is understandable. Writing later than Mark they were being bombarded by accusations that Jesus was only a man, and not the Son of God; that he had simply died and his body stolen by his followers, not resurrected by God to heavenly glory. In other words, they were being accused of perpetrating a hoax.

But our job now is not to change or ignore the words in the Bible because they make us uncomfortable. The Church did not try to soften Mark’s portrayal of Jesus on the Cross. It did not argue that a Jesus who showed human frailty was not the Son of God. Rather, the Church argued what it had always argued: that the Christ was both God and man, divine and human. The Church has always contended that God could only understand us if he were to become one of us and live among us, feel what we feel and thereby know what we go through.

Our job is to hear Mark’s words and to ponder them; not to try to rewrite the Bible or to try to justify them, saying that Jesus didn’t say them, or didn't mean them; or coming up with some other such nonsense to correct Mark.  Our job is to try to understand the depths of despair that Jesus felt; this very brave, very faithful, very human Jesus we see here hanging on that tree.

And what we clearly see, is that God never for one moment actually abandoned Jesus. We know this because God's reply to Jesus' death is immediate, abrupt: the moment Jesus dies the curtain of the temple is split in two, from top to bottom, a violent rending, symbolic of Jesus' claim that he would tear down that Temple "made with hands."

This huge, dense “curtain” was actually a mammoth drapery, over a foot thick and 40 feet high, and was to keep everyone except the High Priest from going into the inner sanctum said to be where God dwelt. Here Mark, not with words, but with the mental picture of the Temple Curtain ripped asunder, has created a significant theological picture. Rending that Curtain in two symbolizes that no more will access to God be restricted to a chosen few allowed to enter the "Holy of Holies."

From that time forward people will come to a new temple, one "not made with hands," but rather one build upon the sacrifice of Jesus. God is saying that Jesus is the new Temple, built to receive those who show faith in the One who died to save us from ourselves, and from the sin within us.

Scholars do not often see Mark are much of a theologian. And he was certainly not one to write long theological explanations or include speeches by Jesus to explain why Jesus did what he did, or said what he said. John, writing a half century later, would be the one to do that. But, unlike John, Mark seldom speaks in theological terms. Rather he lets the theology be found in the mental pictures his writing evokes.

Thus in his story of the crucifixion he moves quickly to another great theological truth that he lets someone else speak. Startlingly, an outsider comes immediately into the picture of the Crucifixion, not a disciple, not a Jew, not in any way an "insider," but of all people, a Gentile, a Roman centurion. This centurion stands at the foot of the cross and says what no man, disciple or priest, had ever before figured out in the entire telling of Mark's Gospel:  "Truly, this man was the Son of God."

In a single moment God has vindicated Jesus; replacing the Temple as the center of worship and offering in its place Gods' own Son, who is confessed as the Son of God by a Gentile who had no agenda and no prior motive to think that, let alone say it.

And, as irony piles on irony, we are told that while the disciples, who were all men, all fled in cowardly retreat, standing in the distance are three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joses, and Salome; three who had followed him in Galilee and had provided for him when he was going about his ministry. In that time and place it was not acceptable for women to play a prominent role, and so they toiled in the background on his behalf. But, unlike the core group of male disciples, these three female disciples, and some other women, while not coming to the Cross to share his agony with Jesus, at least looked on, waited and watched.  They did not provide comfort to Jesus, perhaps would not have been allowed to, but they did not flee as did the men.

And there was one other, Joseph of Arimathea, who showed courage, which only Mark sees that way.  Indeed, it must have been courage and perhaps remorse, because Mark has told us that ALL of the Sanhedrin, of which Joseph was a member, had found Jesus deserving of death. But Mark tells us now that Joseph went "boldly" to Pilate to ask for Jesus' body.  Only in Mark does Pilate question whether Jesus is really dead; and, assured by the centurion that he is dead, he granted the body to Joseph for burial.

Joseph took the body down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a rock hewn tomb.  Then he rolled a stone in front of the tomb’s entrance.  Preparing us for the resurrection, Mark tells us that the two Marys followed and saw where the body was laid. On Sunday morning they will return to the tomb and find it empty.  For Mark, the story of Jesus' death can not end with his burial, but with his resurrection. To Mark his death and resurrection were one event, each part of which was of no use to us without the other.

Mark, more than any of the other Gospel writers, emphasizes the importance of the Passion.  The Roman centurion's words dramatize the singularly Marcan idea that people cannot truly know who Jesus is until the death of the Messiah and the related resurrection. As reported by Mark, people may think they know him; and they can guess at who he is, but, until the death of Jesus, no one really knows who he is.

Mark clearly implies that one can become a true disciple, a faithful and brave disciple, only through understanding the suffering symbolized by a Cross which strips away all human support systems and makes one totally dependent upon God.  To Mark, to keep the faith requires this recognition of our total dependence on God. For Mark, salvation comes not from "coming down from the cross" as Jesus was taunted to do; but from acceptance of the cross and all that it entails.

Mark's community was one suffering from great persecution.  As Dr. Brown says, "the… 'Good News' for them was that this trial and suffering was not a defeat but a salvific example of taking up the cross and following Jesus." In other words, when we suffer for Christ we are doing no more than, and probably much less than, what he has already done for us. And thus, we can do no less than to accept whatever Crosses we are asked to bear for our faith.

We do not live in suffering and persecuted communities.  So perhaps an additional question for us is whether we can, accustomed as we are to great material pleasure, and not being used to suffering for the sake of Christ, find in Mark's description of the Passion a passion of our own for taking up our cross and carrying it in his name.  While we may not know such suffering ourselves, there are millions yet today who do suffer from the burdens of their own unjust crosses imposed upon them who would deny them to worship as Christians.  Doing something about that can be a way we can begin to know what it means to others who, though innocent, to this day bear crosses not of their own making.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer said that Jesus calls us to "come die with me."

That is a very Marcan idea. We are far removed from such drastic action in our lives.  But there are many who do die without help or hope..  "Take up you cross and follow me" is still the word to us from the Christ. And it is Mark’s very human Jesus who shows us the way.

God bless.