a sermon preached on Good Friday, 2009
want you to hear this story as if for the first time. And I want you to hear it as Mark dares to tell it. In Mark’s telling, from the time Jesus falls silent before Pilate until he finally succumbs to death, he says but one thing: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani. Tragically, even that one final powerful statement is misunderstood by some of the bystanders: “Listen,” they say, “He is calling for Elijah!”
But he is not calling for Elijah. He is, as Reynolds Price phrases it, “dying in agony and perhaps disillusionment, abandoned by all but a few women followers.” “Jesus cries out in Aramaic a dreadful last line – ‘My God, my God, why did you forsake me?’ Mark does not tell us that the cry is a quotation from Psalm 22, a poem which ends in affirmation of God’s goodness; Jesus can hardly be thinking affirmation now. He only cries out once more and dies.” (Reynolds Price, Three Gospels)
There is, in Mark’s version of the story, no words forgiving those “who know not what they do;” there is no “It is accomplished,” and no “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” There is only this anguished citation of that searching psalm, a death howl, and a last breath.
Why has Mark remembered only this? Why does he want us to hear these words, and these words alone?
Mark’s Jesus is a man of urgency and intensity. And for all that he is God-soaked, he is very much human.
“The Christ that emerges from Mark,” writes the musician Nick Cave, “tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity.” (Nick Cave, Forward to ‘The Gospel According to Mark , Grove Press Pocket Canons)
The characters in Mark come into contact with Jesus, and they are inevitably confronted with the need to decide: is this Jesus someone to follow, or is he someone from whom to flee? Should we have him reshape us, or should we be part of putting an end to him? The reader – the hearer of what Mark alone of the four gospel writers actually calls “Good News” – is invited to consider the responses of the characters in the story, and then decide “what am I going to do with this Jesus?”
A line from a psalm in Aramaic, and a death cry. It feels like abandonment, doesn’t it? Jesus is not play-acting here: he is dying, and as Mark remembers it all, his death is one punctuated by an agonizing question. Has this done anything at all? Have I done anything at all?
It is a question that could only be asked by one fully human. And Jesus was fully human.
Then watch; watch and listen.
Two things take place; one seemingly supernatural, cosmic, mystical. The other utterly astonishing.
“And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” That is all Mark gives us on the cosmic event. That curtain, incidentally, was enormous – about 50 feet high by 30 wide – hanging in front of the main sanctuary of the temple. According to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, the curtain was ornately embroidered to represent the panorama of the heavens; it symbolized the line between the realm of God and the abode of humanity. And it is torn apart. Everything about the way in which God relates to the world is redefined at the moment of Jesus’ death, yet it is delivered to us in just one line: “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”
And then this: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was Son of God.'” The centurion – one of the executioners, the persecutors, the archetypal enemies – is not here responding to the frankly impressive supernatural and cosmic event at the temple. You could imagine why someone might be drawn to make some bold statement after seeing that. No, the centurion’s face is toward the cross, and his confession is in response to “the way Jesus breathed his last.”
A reader who knew nothing of this story would see a man die on a cross, maybe feel impressed or just a bit perplexed at the business of the temple curtain, and then see in the face of the centurion – hear in the voice of the centurion – the confession that this battered and broken and despairing man had been “Son of God.” We can’t see with the centurion’s eyes, so we have to trust him – trust the enemy! – trust his experience. For all of the desolation expressed in those Aramaic words, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani, the way Jesus breathed his last spoke not merely of human death, but of God; and if of God, then of life.
Fully human, and yet “Son of God.”
Who can make any sense of this? Yet maybe Mark doesn’t require us to make sense of it; maybe Mark himself still doesn’t know what to think about it all. He just has to tell us his impressions of what happened over the course of a couple of years of Jesus’ adult life, and specifically what happened on an executioner’s hill one Friday at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon. A peasant rabbi died in apparent despair; a centurion watched it happen – heard that man breathe his very last breath – and it so shook him that he could only say the thing that prior to this moment only the demons had said aloud: “Son of God.”
There is more in Mark’s telling, but we’re not going to rush to get there… and as we’ll see on Sunday, the “more” in Mark is pretty bare-bones. For today, the body needs to be taken down, wrapped and placed in its borrowed tomb. The sun will set, night will fall, tomorrow will be another day. The disciples will remain in hiding, glad for the cover of the night’s darkness. The women will weep, and struggle to scrape the violent images of his suffering from their dreams. And somewhere in some garrison a Roman centurion will toss in his bed, wondering at what they had done.