April 1, 2012
“Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” As I reflect on Mark’s version of the passion narrative that we just heard, I marvel at the enigma with which Mark presents us. Mark gives us little to work with, and what he does give us is profoundly unsettling. In Mark, there is nothing of the familiar Christian understanding of the cross as Jesus dying for our sins, there is no mention of sacrifice, no substitutionary atonement. Instead, Mark challenges the careful reader and the thoughtful Christian to wrestle with the tragedy and the horror of the crucifixion.
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to understand what the crucifixion meant for Mark, we need to begin here, with this question. According to Mark, these are the last words Jesus spoke on the cross. How were they meant? Did Jesus speak them in anger, or resignation, fear or despair?
How are we to understand them? For Christians who know anything about the faith, interpreting these words literally is nonsensical. How can God forsake Jesus? After all, Jesus is God. Remember though, Mark was writing without the benefit of 2000 years of theological baggage, before the centuries of debate and speculation that eventually led to our understanding that Jesus was both human and divine.
Mark meant those words absolutely literally. They are the culmination of the passion narrative, because for Mark, Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by all of his disciples. Most of the disciples fled at his arrest, and Mark dramatizes their flight by a puzzling mention of a young man whose robe is torn him from as he tries to run, and he ends up fleeing naked. Peter made it to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house before deciding that “the better part of valor was discretion,” denied he knew Jesus and fled the scene. So at the cross, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus was alone, surrounded only by his executioners. There were, according to Mark, women, female disciples, watching on from a distance, and they would be the first to return.
Jesus dies utterly alone, abandoned by his closest friends, and for Mark, that is precisely the point. Thus the question, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” dares us to wonder whether Jesus felt abandoned by God.
But Mark answers that question immediately by giving to the centurion the famous line, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” And again, Mark leaves no room for debate or discussion. He says quite clearly that the centurion was looking directly at Jesus and that it was because of the way in which Jesus died that led him to make that confession. By the way, it is the first time in Mark’s gospel that a human being confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
A few weeks ago, we heard a passage from earlier in Mark’s gospel where Jesus told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem and be crucified and that if they wanted to be his disciples, they needed to take up their cross and follow him. That’s the message of Mark’s gospel, that’s the meaning of the cross. For Mark, Jesus death is the awaits those who would follow him. It was a death brought about by Jesus’ challenge to the political and religious authorities of his day.
That message is hard to hear; it was hard to hear in the first century, and because of that when Matthew wrote his version of Jesus’ crucifixion, he toned it down considerably. But it has been hard to hear throughout the history of Christianity and for that reason we have over the centuries developed alternative interpretations, many of them.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We, the readers of Mark know the answer to the question Jesus asks God. God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead. But the resurrection for Mark did not lessen the power of Jesus’ death. It gave it meaning. If he had not been raised from the dead, Jesus would have been no different from the countless thousands of others that Rome crucified over the centuries.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Those words of despair and abandonment will accompany us this holiest of weeks. We will hear them again, on Maundy Thursday, as the altar is stripped. We will say them then, as we read together Psalm 22. And again, on Good Friday, we will say them together as we remember and reflect on the crucifixion.
Jesus’ question cries out to us across the centuries. It challenges our faith and devotion; it challenges our experience of Holy Week. We think we know what it all means. Christians have wrapped it all up in a tidy package to make sense of it. But that question, if asked seriously, challenges it all, turns our lives and our faith upside-down and inside out.
This week, we are invited to walk with Jesus as he walks toward the cross. He has bid us to take up our crosses and follow him. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to accept his vision for the world, his vision of the kingdom of God. To walk with Jesus toward the cross is to be faithful to that vision, to reach out in love to all, come what may. As we make our way through Holy Week this year, I pray that all of us experience anew and with power Christ’s love for us and that we share that love with the world.