Above: Good Friday falls on the full moon of the first day of Passover this year, 2018.
Mark’s story, which began heralding a Way through the wilderness (1:2f), ends on the Way of the cross. In Mark’s time the cross could scarcely have been further from a religious icon. To restive imperial subjects it conjured the fate awaiting those who dared challenge Caesar’s sovereignty. To the civilized it was a form of punishment so inhumane that Cicero once urged that it be “banished from the body and life of Roman citizens.” But to Jesus it symbolized the cost of discipleship.
And in Mark’s story, it is portrayed as the great apocalyptic moment in which the Powers are overthrown and their world comes to an end.
After his conviction of sedition by the authorities, Jesus is marched, in the grand shaming tradition of Roman conquest, to the site of execution (Mk 15:21f). This spectacle functioned as a deterrent to would-be subversives–and as an aggrandizement of the Roman military presence.
The prisoner would normally carry his own execution stake, but presumably Jesus is too weak from torture. “Simon of Cyrene from the country” is drafted for the task. This closes the circle of the Jerusalem narrative: Jesus entered the holy city amidst a triumphant crowd of rural peasants (11:8), but leaves it accompanied by a sole farmer. There is irony, too: Jesus’ first companion was another “Simon” (see 1:16), but he has renounced Jesus, so this stranger must suffice.
After the admonition of Prov 31:6, Jesus is offered wine to deaden the agony, but he refuses (15:23). Mark’s simple phrase “and they crucified him…” would have conjured in his audience’s mind horrific images of flesh being nailed to wood. His clothes are divided up, the first of three allusions to Psalm 22’s great lament (15:24; see Ps 22:18). He is nailed up at the “third hour” (the first of Mark’s three “watches” of the cross), and left to asphyxiate under Pilate’s sardonic label, “King of the Jews!” (15:25f).
Gathered at Golgotha like a tableau are representatives of the whole spectrum of Palestinian politics. Guerilla rebels flank him, the very positions of “honor” for which the disciples earlier competed (15:27; see 10:37). Passersby, representing the uncommitted crowd, ridicule him with the false accusations from the kangaroo court hearing (15:29f)–the second allusion to Psalm 22 (see Ps 22:7f). Even the chief priests and scribes are there, joining the chorus of contempt (15:31f). Presiding over the sordid scene is a Roman centurion, while watching in horror from afar are a few remnant female disciples (see 15:39f).
There is an ironic, imploring tone to the taunt that Jesus “save himself.” Even his opponents desire a less ignominious end to this tragedy. Their plaintiff cry is the pitiful culmination to the struggle for faith in Mark’s story. If only Jesus would come down from the cross so that we might “see and believe” (15:32)!
Yet this is the moment in which our blindness will be most consequential, for to understand what happens next truly requires “eyes to see” (see 4:12; 8:18). The thirst for last-minute intervention leads a bystander to mis-interpret Jesus’ last anguished gasp as a desperate petition to Elijah, the eschatological prophet who was supposed to rescue Israel from judgement (15:34f; see Mal 4:5f). Mark makes it clear that this Aramaic phrase is instead the final allusion to the Psalmists lament (Ps 22:1).
This is the third “apocalyptic moment” in Mark’s story. In the first, the heavens were “torn” and God’s voice affirmed Jesus at baptism (see 1:10f). In the second, God’s voice again affirmed Jesus, this time dressed in martyr’s costume (see 9:3-7). But now there is no voice from heaven; only the silence of God.
There are, however, two “signs” that Mark gives us. From the sixth to ninth hour the sun is darkened (15:33). This recalls the ancient story when Israel’s God blotted out the sun for three days over Pharoah’s Egypt to aid Moses in his struggle against an imperial order presided over by the sun god Ra. Here it also symbolizes the apocalyptic unravelling of the whole cosmic order of domination promised by Jesus (13:24f).
Jesus spoke three times of the advent of the Human One, assuring respectively the disciples (8:38f), the Powers (13:26f) and the High Priest (14:62) that they would see this moment. Mark has gathered these same witnesses around the cross: but what do they “see” in this cosmic darkness? Is it Jesus reviled, bringing the liberation story to an grinding halt? Or is it the Human One revealed, bringing an end to the world over which the Powers preside?
To help us, Mark narrates a second “sign.” As Jesus’ body expires in a great death-rattle we are told that the Temple curtain is “torn” in two (15:37f). This torn curtain confirms the fundamental conflict between Jesus’ “body” (symbol of the discipleship community, 14:22) and the “sanctuary made with hands” (the legal-cultic-political system of oppression), to which his opponents had unwittingly testified (see 14:58). Even in death Jesus has subverted the Temple-State. The “strong man’s House” (3:27) has been ransacked. If we have eyes to see.
The immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death provides no evidence that anything has changed, however. We are given three reactions: that of a centurion (15:39), a council-member Joseph (15:42-46), and of some female followers of Jesus (15:40f,47). Contrary to traditional interpretation, two of these three cannot be considered discipleship stories.
The Roman soldier’s utterance is indistiguishable from that of the demons who are forever trying to control Jesus by “naming” him (see 1:24; 3:11; 5:7). After all, the centurion does not respond in discipleship, but remains in his role, dutifully reporting back to Pilate Jesus’ death (15:44f). In Mark it is only the divine voice which provides a reliable witness to Jesus as “Son” (1:11; 9:7). The centurion’s words must be seen as the triumphant conclusion of the soldiers’ mockery begun in 15:16-20.
Joseph’s mission is to beg the body from Pilate — evidence of how firmly in control of events the procurator was (15:43,45). Yet this is not out of compassion, but in order that the corpse not profane the Sabbath (15:42). While Joseph may have been “looking for the sovereignty of God,” he is also a “wealthy member of the council” that condemned Jesus (15:43). Nor are his actions that of a disciple. He hastily wraps Jesus’ corpse in the linen cloth of “betrayal” (see 14:51). He then throws it in a tomb, disdaining even the most rudimentary obligations of a proper Jewish burial (15:46). Like the centurion, this steward of the Sabbath seems to have had the last word over the “Lord of the Sabbath” (see 2:28).
It is not “Elijah” who takes Jesus down from the cross, but a member of the Sannhedrin. The authorities, it seems, have prevailed after all. Joseph’s rolling of the stone across the tomb’s entrance symbolically closes the narrative (15:46). Jesus is dead, the Powers have taken over the story, and the disciples are nowhere to be seen. Except for some women.
Mary, Mary and Salome now represent the last remains strand of the discipleship narrative. These three women have replaced the male “inner circle” of James, John and Peter, who are long gone, having fled for their lives. Mark gives this remarkable description: “When Jesus was in Galilee they followed him and served and, with other women, came up to Jerusalem with him” (15:40f). In other words, from beginning to end of the story, these women, unlike the men, understood the vocation of discipleship as servanthood. That is why they are here, “witnesses” to the terror of the cross.
But what they will witness “on the dawn of the third day” will be even more disturbing.