Sundays in Mark (70) the death of Jesus and the Temple curtain

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

This week we return to Mark 15:38 and the death of Jesus and the decisive spiritual significance of the moment of Jesus’ death as witnessed by the tearing in two of the Temple curtain.

Have you (like me), always been taught that the tearing of the temple veil was the inner veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies – and this was symbolic of the dividing wall between man and God being abolished at the death of Jesus?

Reading around this a bit, its seems that this theory is pretty shaky. There was a second, outer temple curtain separating the sanctuary from the forecourt. This was in full public view when the doors were open. And, according to Josephus, this was a magnificent thick curtain, 80 feet high and portraying the entire heavens.

The tearing from top to bottom of this curtain is dramatic and irreversible. It is a public sign, but of what? A strong case I think can be made that Mark has in mind here a parallel to ‘the heavens being torn open’ at Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9). Just as the baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission, his death marks the climatic end. There is a ‘tearing of heaven’ at both.

The tearing simultaneously acts as a visible sign of judgement on the temple. Jesus’ mission has been confrontational all the way through. He had already warned of the coming destruction of the temple, a fate bound up with Israel’s rejection of her Messiah. The death of the Son of God is intricately bound up with the fate of the temple.

The story of Israel is not ending. But with the death of Jesus, it begins a remarkable new chapter that will change broaden and redefine the people of God. The temple stands as the nation’s  great ethno-centric symbol, the dwelling place of their God. But its days are numbered. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, but not only of ethnic Israel. As the resurrection is about to show, he is the Lord of ALL.

The Death of Jesus

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

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Sundays in Mark (69) The death of the Son of God

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark and specifically within the climax of the passion narrative.

The fresco from the Kloster monastery in Alpirsbach shows Jesus being offered the drink described in this text.

Jesus approaches his inevitable death: the slow agony of crucifixion, the struggle for breath, the heat of the sun, blood loss and trauma from multiple injuries, desolation at his Father’s absence have all taken their brutal toll. No-one gets down alive from a Roman cross.

At his cry of desolation the onlookers offer him a drink to moisten his mouth so he can speak, mistakenly thinking he’s making one last desperate cry to be saved by calling out to Elijah – the prophet around whom Jewish eschatological hopes swirled.

Jesus’ final cry here is loud – the text has a sense of a ‘great cry’ – it is a horrible, shocking scene, filled with the finality of death.

Mark’s focus is on at least two things:

1. Jesus revealed, against all the odds, as the Son of God

2. The decisive spiritual significance of the moment of Jesus’ death witnessed by the tearing in two of the Temple curtain

3. The Gentile centurion being the one who recognises Jesus’ true identity

I’m just going to comment on the first of these and come back to the others in the next couple of weeks.

Jesus as Son of God is the ‘red thread’ tying Mark’s view of Jesus together.

His sonship is announced at his baptism; known by demons;  revealed to Peter & co on the Mount of Transfiguration;  disbelieved at his trial;  and now finally announced by the centurion at the cross.

‘Son of God’ has reference to Ps 2:7 and Is 42:1 which allude to the kingly character and power of the Son – and thus Jesus’ baptism has overtones of a kingly enthronement.

Here is God’s anointed one, but his identity is only revealed to Jesus at his baptism and is a continual source of ‘hiddenness’ and ‘secrecy’ within the Gospel of Mark. In Mark 9:2-9 – the Son of God is revealed to the disciples, this revelation is connected to the command not to tell anyone until the Son of Man rises from the dead.

There is an intentional veiling of Jesus’ identity until after Easter. The ‘messianic secret’ is to preclude misunderstandings of mistaken messianic expectations ‘getting in the way’. The Son of God continues his mission towards the cross, empowered by the Spirit.

Here, at last, is the identity of the Son of God being revealed. The mission of the annointed servant is completely surprising and paradigm shifting. And here, in the moment of Jesus’ death, it is ‘successfully’ achieved. Yet, those to whom it was revealed have fled. No-one understands what is really going on – and the one person who gets closest to this is a pagan soldier …

What does all this suggest to you about the way God does things?

The Death of Jesus

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Sundays in Mark (68) Jesus forsaken

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

We’ve reached one of the most famous and most debated and most preached couple of verses in the Gospel of Mark.

At noon, the brightest part of the day, the sun darkens for three hours. The darkness is a sign of the immense spiritual and eschatological signficance of what is unfolding on the cross.

Darkness was associated with the original Passover, a sign of God’s judgement and of death. Does Jesus’ cry of desolation in the midst of the darkness reveal his experience of God’s judgement and of death? And in doing so his cry reveals the unfathomable depth of the passion of the Christ?

Jesus’ cry echoes the words of Psalm 22:1, yet are spoken in Aramaic. I’ve heard all sorts of interpretations of these verses.

– Jesus loses hope and dies a failure on the cross. Like Albert Schweitzer’s idea of Jesus as a radical but failed apocalyptic Messiah.

– Jesus didn’t really feel forsaken, his cry is more an affirmation of faith in his Father looking beyond death to the resurrection.

But the words in Psalm 22 are of a desperate cry for help for the righteous sufferer. Mark has made clear the impending horror of the cross and Jesus’ full awareness of what lay ahead. He has come to give his life ‘a ransom for many’. His death will be substitionary, representative and involves bearing other’s judgement for sin t0 effect liberation, freedom and forgiveness.

I think we need to be cautious about how far we can press these verses to speak to the depth of trinitarian relationships between Father and Son being ‘severed’. But Jesus endures and experiences the curse and judgement of death (Deut21:23) which separates him in some awful way from the presence of his Father. The sinless one dies a death that is not his to endure.

He dies your death and mine.

And in doing so, his desolation is real. His pain is real. His death is real.

And it is in that very historical reality that Christian hope is rooted.   

The Death of Jesus

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Sundays in Mark (67) Jesus the failure unmasked at last

Continuing in a series of simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark  

Mark’s matter of fact description of the death of Jesus continues. The political and religious dimensions of the crucifixion are never from the surface.

Two enemies of Rome flank Jesus; Jesus himself is there due to Pilate’s political expediency. His fellow Jews have religious reasons for their bitter words – the man dying in agony before their eyes is a shameful failure. Great promises and, yes, some remarkable deeds, yet all now exposed as just empty rhetoric and vain hope. His life ebbing away is proof of that. At last he is unmasked as a false Messiah.

His enemies rejoice. Jesus’ brutal end conclusively proves that their mostly surreptitious campaign against this Galilean nobody was justified. Not only are they finally rid of their fiercest critic, but their religious and political positions are enforced. So now, with no fear of losing the people, at last they can publicly mock the laughable pretensions of the man from Nazareth.

God’s honour is secure. The victory is won. It’s time to celebrate.

Do you hear the irony dripping from Mark’s pen?     

The Crucifixion of Jesus

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28] 29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

Sundays in Mark (66) The crucifixion of Jesus

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

The entire narrative has been inexorably heading towards this point.

Reading this afresh it is remarkable how much Mark says in the sparest of prose. Simon of Cyrene is introduced, the account of the soldiers’ gambling for Jesus’ last vestiges of dignity and life is told, the drink of gall and Jesus’ refusal is mentioned – and all framed by these three words, ‘they crucified him‘.

Unadorned facts. Short. Brutal. Real. Left to the reader’s imagination – of an all too familiar form of violent death.

I have a confession here. I have never watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I can’t even articulate exactly why but I know I’ve never had any inclination to see it. It just felt so ‘out of step’ with the Gospels. The violence is not overlooked but it is not centre stage.

The real point, and more of Mark’s irony is at play here, is that this powerless, condemned, thirsty, beaten, bloodied, publicly humiliated, mocked, shamed and abandoned Jew dying a cursed man’s death, really is, against every expectation and every prior theological framework,  the long promised King of the Jews, the Messiah of God.

But that’s a crazy foolish thing to say. Makes no sense at all. Does it?

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Sundays in Mark (65) Jesus Mocked but things are not all they seem

After a bit of a break, I’m back to some simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark

We were in the the trial and execution narrative section of the Gospel. Jesus has been condemned to die by a pragmatic Pilate. He is now ‘beyond hope’, the verdict has been passed, and he is given over to the authority and power of those tasked with torturing, killing and degrading enemies of Rome – the local soldiers.

On a random tangent here, I’ve just finished the third (Sovereign) of the C J Sansom’s wonderfully compelling Matthew Shardlake series – a sort of medieval detective but much more. He brilliantly evokes the day to day life, politics and grim realities of King Henry VIII’s England. And there is no more grim reality than the Tower of London. A place of fear, brutality and hopelessness.

I won’t give spoilers away, but there is a chillng torture scene as someone is left in the hands of the expert and coldly ruthless torturers in the Tower.

Reading it, I thought of this text in Mark and how Jesus is given over to the hardbitten professional killers employed to effect the brutal realities of the death sentence ordered by their (comfortably distant) superior.

Jesus is beyond the protection of any law; without hope of a reprieve and left alone to face his professional tormentors – who, Mark makes clear, are clearly enjoying the extra ‘twist’ this prisoner has provided them with all this talk of being the ‘King of the Jews’.

Mark is silent on how Jesus responds to the torture and mockery. There is a strong implication of silent endurance.

Here is the innocent lamb being led to the slaughter. Here is the true King being mocked and offered joking worship. Here is the irony and ‘foolishness’ of God revealed. Here is the upside kingdom of God in all its surprising weakness. Here is the path to the cross.

But, as with Jesus as every stage of his life, things are not all they seem.

And this, it seems to me, is a way of summarising the Christian faith. It is a belief that a deeper reality lies behind what we can see. That beyond the often grim and harsh realities of life there is hope because there is a God who has entered those realities and overcome them in the most counterintuitive way imaginable – death and resurrection.

  The Soldiers Mock Jesus

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Sundays in Mark (64) Jesus sentenced to death

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Rejoining Jesus’ ‘trial’ before Pilate, Mark introduces the information that the Romans would release a prisoner at Passover as a traditional but notional act of ‘goodwill’ – the interesting twist being that the subjugated Jews got to choose whom it would be.

Mark also gives information on Pilate’s motivation and personal convictions that the charges against Jesus were politically motivated falsehoods. In typical style he does not go into detail of how he knows this but other gospel accounts tell of Pilate’s vacillation, sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, his wife’s dream about Jesus’ innocence and Pilate’s attempt to wash his hands of the whole affair.

The earliest Christian tradition clearly is that Pilate is more of a passive participant: in the sense of having no active interest in seeing Jesus dead. He is caught on the horns of dilemma:

Release the innocent man and risk alienating even further pretty well the entire Jewish Sanhedrin and aggravating a hostile crowd – a crowd remember who are gathered from the entire Jewish diaspora in Jerusalem for Passover. And simultaneously fail to release one of their political heroes, Barabbas, who had had the courage to do what Jesus had not done – attempt a violent liberation of God’s people in God’s given land?

OR

take the politically expedient route of killing this inconvenient Rabbi?

Political expediency wins.

Reflection

There are so many things that could be said here. One thing that stands out to me is the stark and deliberate contrast between Barabbas and Jesus. The former represents the route of power and violence, might and force to achieve God’s ends and end Pagan occupation of Israel. This is the sort of thing the Messiah was expected to deliver.

The latter emphatically rejects the ‘will to power’ to achieve God’s ends. This upside-down-Messiah preaches an upside-down kingdom where the meek will inherit the earth and those who suffer for the kingdom are to consider themselves blessed. And this is no ‘soft’ or ‘weak option. It is the hardest path of all. He lives out this upside-down-kingdom all the way to the cross. And his followers today are called to take the same route of suffering, peace, powerlessness and non-violence.

Mark 15:6-15

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13 “Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.