In today’s long readings from Mark, the telling of the gospel story undergoes a major change. Up until now, Mark’s narrative has gone tearing along at break-neck speed, with every other small section introduced by the word ‘immediately’. Now the story becomes agonizingly slow, each terrible scene fully portrayed. The word ‘immediately’ is found only once more: when Judas appears with soldiers, in the garden of Gethsemane, bringing the kiss of betrayal.
But even with the change of pace, one aspect of this passion narrative is so constantly in our background that we may not fully see it. I am speaking of the cross. In a sense, we take it for granted: always present in our sanctuary, carved on signs by our churches, or small ones worn as jewelry. What does it mean that we symbolize our Christian identity with this gruesome instrument of execution? For that’s what the cross was. It’s like having a large representation of an electric chair hanging over the altar.
Make no mistake, Jesus was not just killed, he was executed by a means that Romans used to brutalize, humiliate, and dehumanize those put to death by the state. Crucifixion could not be used to execute Roman citizens. It was saved for barbarians and outsiders.
Most especially it was used to get rid of those who were rebels against the stranglehold of the all-encompassing Empire. That was the point of labeling Jesus the ‘King of the Jews’, one who might set himself up against Caesar. When Pilate offered to trade Barabbas for Jesus, he was giving the crowd their choice of notorious rebels. The two crucified on either side of him, whom we call ‘thieves’, are, in the original Greek, referred to as ‘leistei’ a common term for guerilla fighters.
Was Jesus the leader of an armed struggle against the Romans and the Temple authorities? That was not what he had been preaching and teaching to any who would listen, especially the anawim, the poor and dispossessed of the land. But when human life is cheap, and all are expendable, it’s easiest to simply rid oneself of those who could conceivably be dangerous.
In accepting this death Jesus took on himself the suffering of all humanity – especially those who had known oppression and injustice, all who had been enslaved, trampled under foot, and slaughtered. He also carried the fury and emptiness of those whose lives had been deformed by causing terrible harm to others.
He was the entirely human being who would bear all this reality in his dying heart and muscles and bones, with each ragged breath he struggled to take, until it wrung from his lips the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” And when he died, all human suffering was taken into the very heart of God.
Mark’s gospel starts with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” That title is heard in the gospel itself only from God, naming the Son, and from demons, in fear of him. Now after Jesus has taken his last breath, when his body has gone limp, when his eyes are empty and life is swallowed up in death, a human being for the first time names him. The Roman centurion, standing at the foot of the cross and looking at Jesus’ dead body, exclaimed, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”
I would invite all of us to hold onto the cross and this death in our minds and hearts during Holy Week, in our prayers, reflection and worship. For if we seek to know Jesus the Son of God, this is where we must look.