As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. Mark 15.1-5
Some years ago I helped lead a school Christmas Celebration. Among the songs which the children learned and sang was one which had one of those catchy Choruses which went something along the lines of “What do you see? A tiny little baby? A tiny little baby… but there`s something very special right here”. What made matters worse was that it had one of those tunes which I have to say I`m now pleased to have forgotten… because, shall we say it lingered for quite a while. But the point it made was a good one…. What do you see? What do you see going on in that encounter between Jesus and those who were about to put him to death?
In reflecting on this Chapter 15 of Mark`s Gospel, which will occupy us this afternoon, I have been struck by the seeming ordinariness of things. We, at least I ….am accustomed to grand theological points here at the cross. I think this is typically because we are used to harmonising the Gospel accounts of what happened on that first Good Friday. Without realising how much we rely on the perhaps fuller perspectives of Luke, Matthew and John. They give us plenty of incident and things to get our teeth into. In comparison Mark appears Spartan and paired down… He appears only to want to deal in the essentials.
So for example, in these last few hours of his life Christ speaks only twice… the first as we heard a moment ago…when he`s asked if he is the King of the Jews he offers the equivalent of “If you say so” and the second is a cry of dereliction, “My God may God why have you forsaken me?” But this, I suspect is more than just a literary device. There is an earthiness and a reality about Mark`s account which draws us in.
It helps I think to recall the sheer industrial scale on which crucifixions were carried out. With two thousand years of deep devotion and hindsight what happened that day captivates and in the best sense `enthrals` you and I. But at the time this was just business as usual. The events over which we poor our attention today were nothing out of the ordinary to those who were there. Until we`re told…. “Pilate was amazed”.
Pilate was a man who historians tell us was renowned for his brutality; he was bent only on preventing trouble in this minor part of the Roman Empire but we notice how twice he`s given pause for thought. Twice he can`t help noticing something other than ordinary `going on right here`. As we will hear later he was surprised when he heard that Jesus should die so quickly and insisted on checking it out but here something else had caught his attention…. Most unexpectedly, most out of the ordinary… Here was a man going to his death without pleading; without attempting to justify himself or incriminate others. On the contrary, Jesus is silent.
This simple detail is what led our forebears in faith to connect with the words of Isaiah the prophet:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53.7)
They saw a man who was silent in the face of accusation, misunderstanding and brutality. They had held a consultation; taken up common cause against him…. They had justified themselves and their opinion of him; easy to do isn`t it……?
And then we`re told, “They delivered him to Pilate”. They had to get someone else as it were on their side; perversely a `higher authority` to reinforce their view of things. Easy to do isn`t it……? But Jesus doesn`t try to explain; he doesn`t apologise or plead that there has been some terrible mistake. No, this is where, as he anticipated, he is “delivered into the hands of sinners” (Mark 14.41) So what do you see…?
Mark saw a man who was on the way to the cross… who was silent; and it was a silence that made people wonder. Everything that we see and reflect on when it comes to the cross is easily filtered through generations of theology; of language and pictures which have helped us understand what we believe is going on here…. And that`s fine. My point is that Mark, in offering us such a paired down account of things…. Such a very earthy and on the face of it ordinary account …..manages to strip away for a moment some of those categories and language … and effectively he says, “Just look at this”.
Just wonder… just marvel for a moment, as Pilate did… at for example, the silence of Jesus. Again, and as ever, Jesus doesn`t do what might be expected or anticipated from someone in his circumstances. In this way the special-ness, if you will; the spur to faith comes not from the religious framework we impose on these events… like “Jesus died for our sins”.
That`s an important statement …. but we first reach that conclusion by allowing the details of the story to pop out at us and make us wonder. Because it is `out of the ordinary` isn`t it? to keep silent(!) It`s out of the ordinary to keep silent in the face of accusation, misunderstanding or criticism? And this is the point of revelation.
I suspect we all know how easy it is to press the `self-justification` button… or gather a few friends around for moral support. But how hard it can be to keep silence… to allow others to think, assume and feel as they wish about you. “Have you no answer?” Jesus was asked. “See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15.5)
We mustn`t be naïve when it comes to power. We all know that silence can be as equally manipulative or crushing as speech… but this isn`t the silence of control. It`s the kind of silence that refuses to do violence to the other and it simply entrusts the truth to the one who will finally judge. It`s the kind of silence which is born of a security found not in the opinion or approval of others but in God. As Mark would have it, it`s what you see in someone on the way of the cross….. and it makes people wonder.
Reflection When do I press the `self-justification` button?
Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us`. Romans 8.33-34
Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips`. Psalm 141.3
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Mark 15.6-15
Once or twice I`ve heard Police Officers speak about the challenge of dealing what is euphemistically called a `domestic dispute`. It`s what we call one of those sad occasions when a row between a husband and wife shall we say, begins to disturb the neighbours! The reason that the Police Officer needs to act with a certain caution is because of the likelihood that the couple will together turn on them. They will regard the Officer as a threat.
It`s curious that no matter how serious the argument between them… the couple can in a moment put all of that aside and strangely find something to reinforce their relationship by together fighting this perceived intruder. The Police Officer, in this way becomes a scapegoat. Unable to deal with their issues alone they project their fear and distress onto this third party.
In the reading we heard a moment ago we were told: They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more. ‘Crucify him!’
The interesting thing here is that Pilate didn`t get an answer to his question. What Jesus had or hadn`t done was for moment immaterial. Jesus was becoming a scapegoat; someone on whom they could vent their anger and distress. And they were all at it. So this is where Pilate grabbed his opportunity and “wishing to satisfy the crowd” (again, it had nothing to do with what he had or hadn`t done) we`re told, he “released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified”. In the cause of `keeping the peace` Jesus became expendable.
And the Chief Priests seized their moment as well didn`t they? They also (and very cleverly it must be said) linked their desire to be popular among the crowds with a chance to be rid of Jesus. Stirring up the crowd to ask for Barabbas was a master stroke. As for the people, well Jesus was just a convenient peg on which to hang so many of their grievances; he was a safety valve for all their pent up tension. And after all, Barabbas was clearly a man of action. We presume he`d murdered a Roman or two… he`d put his money where his mouth was and been involved in an insurrection. So why wouldn`t they want him over Jesus… a jumped up country lad with pretensions to being a Rabbi? But anyway, what we seem to have here is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The Chief Priests get rid of Jesus. The crowd get Barabbas and Pilate gets to restore a bit of Roman order …. So “after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified”. So Jesus is the one who bears the cost … he is the scapegoat. He gets brutalised because these three groups of people can`t deal with their `stuff`.
It`s such a familiar pattern isn`t it? Such a convenient arrangement? We create a fragile unity by appointing a common enemy or scapegoat. And we can do it with such self-righteous indignation… We don`t realise what we`re doing…. Isaiah the Prophet again says:
`He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.` Isaiah 53.3-6
The remarkable and for me challenging thing is that Jesus walks into all of this. He seems to accept this as ….his Vocation. He seems to inhabit that place where we can`t deal with our `stuff`… where we`re bending over backwards to find someone else to blame. And we see this all around us at the moment don`t we? Not least in the scapegoating of migrants….. Just take a moment to list the things they are perceived to be responsible for…… and you`ll see what I mean.
And all of this is a perverse way of shoring up our inability to deal with our collective `stuff`… that we`re not really the cohesive and tolerant nation or community we think we are. I return to the point I made earlier… Looking on at these events we naturally think of them on the grand scale… loaded with theological and religious significance. Here is Jesus as St. John says `taking away the sins of the world`. Quite so. I wouldn’t` deny that for a moment.
But the window onto this which Mark gives us is far from grand. All we have is a petty and rather grubby little squabble between a military thug; religious bigots and a braying mob who found it pragmatic to murder an innocent man. This was a convenient injustice that was done that day but in freely walking into it Jesus affirms that even this squalid territory is also inhabited by the Lord God. In freely walking into it Jesus opens the door to that place where we find the origins of so much violence and anger. It`s that place where almost by default there is always someone else to blame.
Reflection Who are my Scapegoats?
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John 1.29
For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. James 3.16-18
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
When I looked at the reading we`ve just heard, for some reason I found myself reflecting on those words: “They called together the whole cohort”. I realised that it had never occurred to me to ask how many soldiers we`re talking about? So I did a bit of digging around and to my astonishment I discovered that this is about four hundred men. Without wishing to sound flippant this is heavy-duty attention. That`s a lot of people ganging up on you… a lot of people calling you a fool.
It was for this part of the narrative that the Film Director Mel Gibson received considerable criticism because he graphically portrayed something of the extreme brutality which was meted out on Jesus in his film the Passion of the Christ ……but there can be little doubt that in this sense he got it right. Jesus had already been scourged and now, as these few verses tell us Jesus is utterly submerged in their twisted malevolence.
All of which illustrates perfectly the point made by William Vanstone in his book The Stature of Waiting- that whilst in the first half of the Gospel of Mark Jesus is very clearly seen to be the prime mover in the narrative… ….there comes a point where he is the one who is `done to`. He is, in `the hands of sinners` (14.41) and as I`ve already observed, he hardly says a word. And the Litany of things they do TO Jesus includes being led into the courtyard of the palace; clothed in a purple cloak; he has a crown of thorns put on his head and they saluted him.
They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, knelt down in homage to him. And having mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him and then they led him out to crucify him. All of which was a bit of entertainment for the boys in the barracks –all four hundred of them.
Now, the reason for this `special attention` of course, has its origins in who they perceived Jesus to be. I mean, among the Romans he`s known as “The King of the Jews”…. This was his garrison nickname. And there`s a great deal of irony in this title (it`s used three times by Pilate). I mean he SAYS this is what THE JEWS call him (15.12) … but I think that this is Pilate jumping to his own conclusions. No, I think Pilate is bracketing and defining Jesus in terms that HE understood…. Because Pilate viewed everything from the perspective of power, revolution and the possible threat to Rome. Like the cynic who assumes `everyone must have an angle` or agenda. He naturally assumed Jesus was making a bid for power.
So, whilst the mockery Jesus receives is therefore exactly what you`d expect from a conquering army…. whose ideology throughout the known world remained unchallenged and was brutally enforced – not least through mass crucifixion of any dissenters. What I`m getting at is that they saw Jesus on their own simple terms… It was all about power. THEY had it… and in comparison to them, any suggestion that Jesus was a King was a rather sick joke. To them Jesus was quite literally a laughing stock. Of course, this is the strategy of the tyrant and importantly, this is how any ideology is enforced. If you want a more recent example just recall how under Soviet Communism the Party would utilise psychiatry to bolster the regime; so therefore anyone who dissented from the Party line was simply declared insane and locked away.
This is how tyranny sucks you in. It dictates the terms of the discussion and any dissent is deemed as politically incorrect; intolerant; bigoted or unpatriotic. I make no party political point but I would suggest there are three areas of contemporary life where we see this kind of dynamic at work. The first is the assumption that free-market capitalism is the only way for a society to proceed. The second is our unquestioning possession of first strike Nuclear Weapons. The third is the re-defining of sexual relationships.
There. I`ve mentioned three `sacred cows`. Now, just notice how hackles rise when these issues are even raised for debate and how quickly potential dissenters are labelled as radical, dangerous or plain barmy. The point is that these supposed orthodoxies have incredible influence in shaping the way we live. They become part of the air we breathe; they are our standard assumptions. The consequence, however, is a life of almost perpetual fear, anxiety, conformism and barely concealed anger? You see, what I`m inviting us to examine, as we see Jesus being brutalised and treated as a sick joke by the might of Rome, is whether the faith and the life to which he calls us is not more of a challenge to some of these assumptions than we realise? The clue I think is in the mockery.
There is something about this incident which invites us to ask whether authentic faith isn`t always going to be perceived as barmy in the world as we know it…..? There is something about this incident which asks us to reflect on our easy compromises with `the way of the world` and how hard we try to make the faith sound `reasonable` and acceptable to contemporary people…. for fear of the mockery; the accusations of intolerance and all the rest. And I wonder if this incident tells us that we are wasting our time?
Jesus does not compromise with Rome and it`s way of operating. He doesn`t accept THEIR understanding of Kingship and power. Again, of course they laughed and mocked and joked. In THEIR terms that`s exactly what it all looked like. They would have laughed even more at his assertion that he is ushering in a new world order; which in comparison to Rome it`s an upside down kingdom of justice and mercy… a way of life which contradicts the Roman and it must be said, twenty-first century narrative as well. No, he`s just a fool …..isn`t he?
The problem is that Jesus says all manner of things we have to wrestle with. And he insists that if we`re to go with him then you have to learn to see the world differently… through very different spectacles …… and allow what you see to give shape to how you live. To follow Jesus on the way of the cross will lead you into this place on tension. The place where you have to come clean about what we might call our `split personality` when it comes to faith. It`s that spurious division we make between the sacred and the secular and our sneaking assumption that faith is for the weak-kneed, gullible and naïve in comparison to what we call the `real world`. You need courage. But when they mock you…. it`s just possible you`re on the right lines… it`s just possible that you`ve just taken up the cross.
Reflection Speak to Jesus about what you wish Jesus HADN`T said. How does he reply?
Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 1 Corinthians 3.18
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. 1 Corinthians 4.9-10
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. Mark 15.21-32
One of the most compelling features of the Gospels are those what we might call `throw away` lines or `details` which lend a distinct air of authenticity to what`s going on. A few moments ago we heard one of the most memorable of them. “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene”,… notice…. “the father of Alexander and Rufus”. Those two names Alexander and Rufus; that little detail opens up a whole new perspective on these events in Jerusalem. We`re reminded, for instance, as someone has put it; that the Christian faith is very much a family matter. Alexander and Rufus are clearly named because they would be well known to the Christian community Mark was writing for… and the story they were perhaps able to tell about what happened to their father would have been treasured by our forebears.
And these two names –in connection with their father who had carried Jesus`s cross – But wring us closer to the action.. to the blood and the sweat, the injustice and the agony of it all. Their father Simon, had quite literally carried the Cross and again, we might imagine that their story bolstered the faith of many. What I find intriguing are those words “They compelled a passer-by… to carry his cross”. The need to help Jesus on his way sound pretty obvious in view of the brutal treatment he had received. He was clearly unable to bear the weight of the cross-beam. And what`s demanded of Simon is illustrated if you recall, in something Jesus taught… all about how to respond to the Romans….
In Matthew`s Gospel Jesus said, “”If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”. (Matthew 5.41) Jesus drew attention to this right the Romans had of demanding servitude from the population. And so, as I say… Simon is just passing by and he finds himself drawn in, compelled indeed, to carry the cross.
It`s perhaps a subject for another day but some scholars have observed that Mark seems to have shaped his Gospel so that it resembles a programme of teaching… or of leading someone deeper into Christ`s friendship. So we see the disciples as models, if you will.. of how this happens. Along the way, of course we hear of numerous others… some accept Jesus , others reject him.
And two early passages set the tone… Christ proclaiming ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1.15) soon followed by the Parable of the Sower…. (Mark 4.1-9) Reflecting on how people respond to the Good News. But here we have Simon… who is also drawn into accompanying Jesus – and his story is that “he was passing by”; minding his own business… as we might say.
Now, I`m not being fanciful…we might like to spend some time talking with Simon about his experience. Remember he`s `coming in from the country`- he`s described, as I say as being slightly at arms-length from things… he`s passing by (minding his own business). He doesn`t know… in the context of what was a common occurrence… (just another Roman execution…) that he was encountering the Saviour of the world. But then he`s brought up short. Yelled at? Frog marched? Beaten himself? Whatever happened his experience is one of `compulsion`… he isn`t going to want to do this…. But let`s focus on this `experience`; this is what changes things.
I mean, we`re not told what happens to Simon afterwards but what we can say is that something changed …. If only because his sons Alexander and Rufus seem to have caught the bug as well. We might wonder what was that Simon told them? What proved so life-changing? The point of course, is that since he did obviously tell his sons about it he was someone who was thoughtful enough to process it . Nowadays we might say `He reflected on his experience` and he concluded that in the midst of all of this he encountered … the Living God.
One the great gifts we need to pray for is this ability to reflect… to make this kind of connection… to discern life`s cross-shaped moments. But the key to it all;… let`s look again…. is the way we`re told very clearly that Simon was `compelled` to carry the cross. I mean, what`s going on here is the experience of compulsion. I other words we`re being invited to reflect on how we deal with the things which life throws at us… the things we wouldn`t choose. Here might be a clue to how Christ is present to us. Now, we can…of course quite naturally respond negatively to all of this…. Some of us react very badly to being told what to do. Many of us spend considerable energy insulating ourselves from such inconvenience.
Some of us appear to treat life as if the aim is to acquire some sort of `casual observer` status; somewhat semi-detached. Like Simon we might resemble one of life`s passers-by! But what if we try to make a connection with Simon`s story? What if Simon`s experience is teaching us that following Christ means embracing these moments of compulsion? That even here, perhaps especially here we will find ourselves in Christ`s company? I would suggest that this probably requires a great reversal in our natural way of thinking; a contradiction of our upbringing and assumptions…. But can any of us doubt that this is where we`re being led?
And wouldn`t this go some way to changing our understanding of mission? I`m increasingly concerned about the anxiety I sense in the Church about Quote `bringing others to faith`. And the increasingly shrill cry goes up about `making the Gospel relevant….` It appears that we`re being asked to come up with the magic formula… the knock-down argument… the convincing proof… the engaging events that will prove attractive enough to hold peoples` attention. But I`m not convinced because what appears to have made the difference for Simon is `reflection on his experience`. He was found by God in the flesh and blood events of life. Yes, this was an especially dramatic one we might say… but do remember Simon and his contemporaries saw this sort of thing all the time…No, the Lord found him in a place where he was compelled a moment where he couldn`t choose…. He embraced it, reflected on it and discovered its significance.
I suppose I`m just asking whether our understanding of mission hasn`t become far too `propositional`… and whether Simon teaches us that reflecting on our experience…in the light of, and making connections with our Christian story… as Mark presents it… might not be more fruitful. Instead of telling people ABOUT God we invite them to look more closely FOR him in life as they are experiencing it. But that requires us to become more adept at the same kind of reflection ourselves…
Reflection Spend some time talking with Simon about his experience. How do you respond to compulsion?
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 2 Corinthians 5:14
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Mark 15.33-39
My abiding impression of the Passion this year (as I`ve hinted already) is the sheer ordinariness of it all. I don`t mean to diminish it by saying that. I just keep returning to a very strong sense that for those who took part ….. this was their `everyday`. At three o`clock that afternoon in Jerusalem they didn`t have half the baggage of theological reflection which we have… And clearly, if they had any aspirations or hopes for what Jesus was about these were being brutally and systematically destroyed by the Romans.
For example, those witnesses to the events of Good Friday would not have been thinking (as we might be inclined to do) that what was happening here was some kind of `saving` moment; a victory over evil or whatever.
No, for the most part what they saw was a rather bloody execution and I say again, something that was an everyday occurrence. That doesn`t mean they wouldn`t try to discover some kind of meaning… but that would take time. I mean, it`s like that with a good many deaths which I have come across…. Very often the challenge is to find some kind of meaning… some kind of narrative that helps us make sense of it all. After all that`s part of the process which grieving people must, and indeed, need to go through.
It all boils down to telling the story; the telling, again and again of the sequence of events…. Along with the seemingly endless list of if only` s…. The horror of course, is the inability to find even a shred of meaning. This is voiced by Jesus himself isn`t it?….‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And so that we don`t miss the point Mark quotes Jesus directly in Aramaic. Jesus doesn`t knuckle under; he isn`t silent about his sense of abandonment… he addressed the absent God. As such he gives voice to our own experience of perplexity and … and he silences the platitudes. But here is where the scramble for meaning begins.
Firstly, whilst Jesus clearly experiences and articulates our sense of abandonment we must be careful not to jump the gun. We need to listen carefully … because those words ….‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ are the first words of a Psalm, (Psalm 22) which actually goes on to affirm the goodness and faithfulness of God ….despite our sense of abandonment. In other words, Jesus was praying … and he was using scripture to shape a give voice to his experience. In this he is our teacher.
But secondly, notice how someone else jumps the gun…. We`re told, `When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ (Mark 5.350-37) This is where someone miss heard him. They thought they knew what was going on here… `He`s calling for Elijah` they said. According to Jewish legend Elijah was the helper from heaven…. But again, my point is that this person was as we say, jumping the gun. They didn`t listen and therefore didn`t get the meaning.
That`s one of the reasons for sitting here today. That`s why we find ourselves telling and re-telling the story year on year. Because in a very real sense we don`t want to jump the gun. We don`t want to impose on these events a narrative, a meaning or framework which isn`t there… We don`t want to say anything about this that wouldn`t do it justice. Now this isn`t to leave ourselves in permanent limbo… it`s about embracing our own inability to fully comprehend what`s happening on that cross… and to refuse to simplify or close it down. And this is the point I think Mark is making.
Whilst this unnamed someone jumps to conclusions Mark waits until Jesus breathes his last… he waits if you understand me, until Christ is dead before he tells us where to look. Firstly, he takes us to the Temple….. “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom…”(Mark 15.38) Now, the Jewish framework for understanding and encountering God is broken apart… Jesus has in this sense replaced the Temple. And secondly, Mark tells us about someone who waited to the end… and consequently they `got it`. Notice how he describes it: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15.39)
It comes across as a formula doesn`t it? He stood facing Jesus…. He saw that in this way he breathed his last… and he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Facing Jesus.. witnessing his death… proclaiming his significance… Some would suggest that we have something here that`s similar to Baptism promises. But whatever else is going on, Mark has draw us throughout his Gospel to this very moment. To where the Centurion of all people announces the truth about Jesus. It`s here… that the revelation of God is complete. What St. Paul calls the `glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ`.
But the point is you can`t rush it. And you can`t avoid the death…. This is our window onto God … that`s another reason why we sit here.
Reflection What do you see?
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; And as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Isaiah 53.2-3
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 4.5-6
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid. Mark 15.40-47
Looking back over some forty years since I first started attempting to take the faith seriously, I consider myself very fortunate in my first encounter with a Christian community. St. Mark`s was on a suburban housing estate; a modern building without any frills …..but they had a deep sense of the Christian Year… the story we have to tell… and they acted this out in the Worship- each Sunday and especially at the Festivals. Among many other things, ….. they taught me that when I receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion that I am receiving Jesus himself. They taught me not to doubt this… because along with the preaching of the Word, this is quite literally the life blood of faith.
Now when you put together this deliberate `acting out` of the story with this devotion to the Eucharist you might appreciate that I had and continue to have, quite an emotional reaction to this moment in the story…. the moment of Jesus`s death and burial. That is to say… I struggled (and still struggle) with not being able to receive Holy Communion today and tomorrow. It resonates with me that as our reading says…. `Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus`. Another translation says that he `took courage… and asked for the body of Jesus`.
In other words we might `ask for the body of Jesus` but our liturgical practice however, doesn`t allow it; and it`s taken me some years to move from a certain hurt and frustration to something a bit more reflective. So with this in mind I would invite you over the next forty-eight hours to try to cultivate shall we say a background sense of simplicity …..as we note how ` The stone is rolled against the door of the tomb….` (Mark 15.46) It`s important I think to attempt to enter into that emptiness… The emptiness which so many grieving people experience so keenly… They want the body of their loved one but they`re just not there.
The physical presence matters… Many imagine their loved one will just come through the door any moment… but no. All they have (and some don`t even have that) is a place where just like the women in our reading, they “saw where the body was laid”. So, if you will pardon the expression, it`s important to note that the next forty-eight hours are not `dead time`. They have a quality all of their own. I have found myself anticipating Morning Prayer on the Saturday after Good Friday largely because of the honesty of the Old Testament Reading from the Book of Job.
It includes these words:
‘For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
8 Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant.
10 But mortals die, and are laid low;
humans expire, and where are they?
11 As waters fail from a lake,
and a river wastes away and dries up,
12 so mortals lie down and do not rise again;
until the heavens are no more, they will not awake
or be roused out of their sleep.
13 O that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
14 If mortals die, will they live again?
All the days of my service I would wait
until my release should come. (Job 14.7-14)
I have tried several times today to draw our attention to the ordinariness and the unvarnished quality of Mark`s account… which draws out the humanity and the vulnerability of both Jesus and his disciples. Time and again we see Jesus yes, preaching, teaching and healing with huge authority but at the same time taking huge risks and eventually seeing his popularity collapse into bitterness, hatred and death. The disciples are every bit as frail and uncomprehending as we are. Arguing over which of them was top dog; one minute inspired…. the next traitorous deserters.
But Mark`s contention is that the presence and purposes of God are being worked out in this ordinariness… in and through the lives of these people who are all too like you and I. The actions of Joseph, placing the body of Jesus in the tomb are watched, overseen by the women. “He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid”. To be faithful to the story we have to pause there for now and experience the rawness of this also. Yes, the rawness of grief… as those who have witnessed a death. But Joseph who asked for the body of Jesus had to bury it … let go of it. The body of Jesus lies there in the ground and the sub text for us, of course is that this is, to coin the phrase, about `the death of God`.
So we might like to pray with that ….. and with those we know who experience that particular emptiness of loss or indeed of atheism. Or maybe we could pray with the death of God… as we have known or imagined him to be. I think it`s because the cross is such a potent and helpful corrective to our illusions about God that it is vital that we just sit and look… and wait…..
Thanks be to God
Reflection How does the cross affect your picture of God?
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation Colossians 1.15