Some years ago, when I was a sweet, young Mogget, I thought to participate in Education Week by way of offering a four-class series on the death of Jesus in the Gospels. My intent was to bring out the unique theological insights offered by the authors of each of these exquisite pieces.
In order to compete for a position, I had to actually write up and give one of my proposed classes. In the end, my proposal was not accepted and I probably should not re-use my rejected work. But since things are getting exceedingly boring around here while I do dissy stuff, I guess I’ll serialize it and post it. You can make of it what you will.
The Death of Jesus in Mark
As Mark’s story of the mortal ministry of Jesus comes to a close in the Second Gospel, three major narrative strands running throughout the entire Gospel chave become tangled in a great and potentially insolvable knot:
–The first strand is the consistent failure of the disciples to recognize and respond to Jesus for who and what he is.
–The second strand is the failure of the Jewish leadership and polity to likewise react properly to Jesus.
–The third strand is the apparent, and I stress the word apparent, failure of Jesus in his mission and role as Son of God, Messiah, and herald of the approaching kingdom of God.
When Jesus dies, these three strands of real and apparent failure come together in a great tangle that to the mortal eye has no loose ends.
The Failure of the Disciples
The failure of the disciples, which forms the first strand, appears openly as early as 4:35-41 when the disciples awaken Jesus, who is sleeping in the rear of the boat, by suggesting that he does not care if they perish in the great storm which now threatens them. When Jesus does calm the storm, Mark reports that the disciple’s response was fear, not faith.
At Caesarea Philippi, Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ but his understanding of what this means seems to be flawed. Jesus accepts the designation privately but forbids public testimony and corrects his disciples by teaching that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, killed, and after three days rise again (8:29-31). Peter is unable to accept Jesus’ teaching and his protestations draw the strongest rebuke yet heard on the lips of Jesus: “Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou savourest not the things that be of God but the things that be of men .”
From this point onward, the disciples are increasingly uncomfortable in the situation in which they find themselves (10:32). As Jesus continues to speak of his upcoming ordeal in Jerusalem, the disciples fail to understand and are afraid to ask (9:31-32). The climax comes when the disciples flee from Gethsemane and Peter denies Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard.
This is a betrayal of their call, for disciples are called to be with Jesus (3:14-15), which means that they must be about his business, doing it in his way under his authority. Although they have been temporarily lost to the narrative in the press of the trial, condemnation, sentencing and crucifixion, we will find that as Mark recounts the actual death of Jesus the disciples are once again conspicuous by their absence.
The Failure of the Jewish Leadership
The second narrative strand is, like that of the disciples, a consistent failure on the part of the Jewish leadership and polity to respond correctly to Jesus. Unlike the disciples, however, this failure to acknowledge Jesus runs both deeper and darker. The conflict becomes explicit in 2:1-6 when some scribes question Jesus’ authority to forgive the paralytic’s sins after his friends lowered him through the roof. Although the scribes are said to ponder the question of Jesus’ blasphemy only in their hearts, Jesus confronts them publicly and then heals the paralytic by way of demonstrating his power and authority. From this point onward, the scribes, with one exception (12:28-34), will be a hostile force with which Jesus must contend.
Likewise, conflict with the Pharisees appears in chapter 2 and when, in 3:1-6 Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees and Herodians are said to plot against his life. The crowds are said to see in him only Elijah, perhaps another prophet, or John the Baptist (8:28).
Now, with the timely assistance of Judas, the chief priests and scribes have taken Jesus at night and by force from Gethsemane (14:43-52), tried him (14:53-63), and turned him over to the Romans (15:1) . The crowd, offered a chance by Pilate to free Jesus, chose a murderer over their Messiah (15:6-15). This violent rejection on the part of both the Jewish leadership and city crowds will continue unabated right up to the very moment of Jesus’ death.
The Apparent Failure of Jesus
The third narrative strand is the apparent failure of Jesus. In the very first verse of the gospel, Mark identifies Jesus as both Messiah and Son of God (1:1). The supernatural characters are likewise clear about Jesus’ identity. God identifies him twice as his son (1:11; 9:7) and the devils whom he casts out recognize him without difficulty (1:23-24; 3:11; 5:1-7). Thus, the identity of Jesus is clear to the reader.
However. No mortal character within the story has yet made a completely correct identification of Jesus and in about six hours he will die. This means that despite a series of miracles, healings, and exorcisms unequaled in Israel’s history, despite his teachings, said to have amazed all who listened, despite his spot-on castigation of the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership, and despite his clear and unambiguous call to prepare for and accept the kingdom of God, no one has really either recognized Jesus or fully accepted his invitation to repent and submit to the reign of God.
As we now enter the story, Jesus is condemned as a criminal and fixed to a cross, the male disciples have fled, and hostile spectators representing elements of the Jewish leadership as well as the common crowd entertain themselves by mocking him. Most significantly, there has been no response from God, either to Jesus’ plea in Gethsemane or to any of the other events which have befallen his Son. The three great narrative strands of Mark’s story are indubitably tangled beyond mortal efforts to loosen.
Have the chief priests and the scribes successfully thwarted Jesus’ mission? Are the disciples never to be reunited? Will the kingdom of God survive the death of Jesus? Will God react? And if so, how? Let us turn to Mk 15:33 and begin to unravel this story.
The Sixth Hour:
The story of the death and burial of Jesus in Mark’s narrative is framed in subdued darkness — an eerie lack of light and activity at the sixth hour, which is noon, over against the familiar onset of the Sabbath evening. Mark tells us that :
“When the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”
This unnatural darkness at noon attracts historical interest: what caused the darkness and how far did it extend? But these queries are largely unanswerable and ultimately less important. What is significant is the use to which Mark puts this motif.
The uncanny darkness lasting from noon to about 3 PM is a first indication that this day is like no other. Connotations of divine involvement arise from association with the penultimate plague in Egypt, the three days of darkness recounted in Ex 10:21-23. All this evokes the image of an ironic reversal of the normal association between God and light. Suggestions of impending judgment are to be recalled from citations such as Deut 28:29, Jer 15:9 and particularly Am 8:9-10
“And on that day,” says the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. …I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
Note also the absence of any new human activity from the time the darkness descended until the first great cry, a period of about three hours. Since the verbs used by Mark to report the mockery of vv. 29, 31-32 are in the imperfect such activity may have continued unabated, but the peculiar lighting effectively squelches notice of the mundane and focuses attention on that central cross.
And so we see that Mark’s attention has shifted one last time from the victimizers to the victim. By darkening the sky, God illuminates Jesus in his last moments. The next time Mark mentions the lighting, it will be to announce the sunrise which precedes the women’s visit to the empty tomb, likewise a moment of immense significance.
Next up: The Ninth Hour