Sunday, 29 March 2015

A Dark and Dreadful Death

This is the sixth in our series of sermons on St Mark’s passion narrative. Throughout Lent we have walked the via dolorosa with Jesus. Today we have arrived at its awful destination: Golgotha, crucifixion, darkness, desolation and pain. It is a world away from Palm Sunday with its hosanna acclamations and royal expectations. If ever you needed a reason not to trust a crowd, it is Palm Sunday. For look what has become of this king! The mob has bellowed for his crucifixion. He cannot, will not, save himself from this destiny, St Mark’s three fateful ‘musts’ that have pointed to this journey’s end. Today, on this Sunday of the Passion, we contemplate him as the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

If we are honest, part of us does not know what to make of him hanging there. The trouble is, we know this story too well. We know, or think we know, what lies beyond the end of it, which is next Sunday’s theme. We also know how the other three evangelists tell it and they colour our reading of St Mark. If we only had this first among the gospels, it would both appal and baffle us. We would be baffled because Mark does not explain why the innocent Son of Man should undergo such suffering. We would be appalled because Mark does not spare us the agony: the darkness that falls on the scene, the desperation of this man’s last cry, the hopelessness of this death. And worst of all perhaps, he endures all this alone, taunted and mocked on every side, deserted by his friends, abandoned by God. This is a narrative of dread. We should tremble to read it.

Let me explore some of the themes in this part of the story. The first is the darkness. Forget about eclipses, even though they are recent memory this year. Mark’s darkness is altogether deeper than a mere shadow. It’s the darkness of judgment in our lesson from Amos which Mark quotes earlier in the gospel in a famous apocalyptic passage. ‘In those days after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and that stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken’ (13.24-5). Jesus is speaking just before the passion narrative begins. He says that the kingdom of God cannot come until there is an utter collapse of the present world order: the great stones of the temple will be toppled, human communities and relationships will disintegrate, the entire cosmos will fall in an instant like a house of cards. Mark expects us to remember that saying, so that when we hear of the sun’s light failing in the middle of the day, we recognise what it represents. It is the end of the world, and it is the end of Jesus’s world. He must be extinguished like the sun. He must collapse and die as everything dies round him.

That is dreadful enough. But my second theme is darker still: Jesus’s last word from the cross. Was ever a cry more desperate and more desolate than this awful cry with which he dies? Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? We must tread carefully here, for we are on holy ground. Our Lama Sabachthani crucifix in the north quire aisle captures something of it: the figure of Jesus whittled down to its bare essentials like the skeleton of a dead tree, his back arched in agonising pain. ‘Was ever grief like mine’ he seems to say to us. But this is more than physical suffering. There is a godforsakenness of the soul as the world ends for him and his existence is snuffed out. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ The quotation is of course from Psalm 22, one of the psalms like 69 that so profoundly influenced the way in which the evangelists shaped their passion stories. These psalms end on a note of hope that God does not forget his suffering children and will bring them to a place of deliverance and thankfulness. Does Jesus anticipate the rest of the psalm when he cries out in its opening words, as if he can envisage his own resurrection? I doubt it. I believe that as the abyss opens up beneath him, he takes to his lips the words no doubt learned from childhood that so aptly echo his despair. God has handed him over, betrayed him. He has turned his face away. He may cry, but there is no answer. Elijah will not come to save him.

At the instant of his death, an extraordinary event takes place not far away from Golgotha. This is my third theme: ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom’. For the evangelists, this was remembered as deeply significant on that terrible Friday afternoon. But what did it represent to them? The ‘veil’ hid the holiest part of the temple where only the high priest was allowed to go once a year on the Day of Atonement. Does this violent tearing symbolise the passing of the old religion with its worn-out dependence on rituals and ceremonies? For now a new and living way to God is opened up through the blood of Jesus.

And Mark sees this as another scene in the apocalyptic drama acted out on the cross. Like the darkness at noon, like Jesus’ wrecking of the money-changers’ tables in the temple precinct, the rent veil stands for judgment on Jerusalem and its religious institutions. The old must be swept away before the new comes. When Mark wrote, probably in the 60s of the first century, the temple was about to be destroyed by the Romans. The unthinkable would happen. Was this not a sign of the end of days? In his description of the tearing of the temple veil, Mark uses a word he has already used early in his Gospel. At Jesus’ baptism, he says that the sky is ‘torn open’ as the dove descends and the voice from heaven speaks, and Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. The rending of sky and curtain is linked to a new world order we call the kingdom. But this can only happen if he drinks the cup we heard about early on in this series, this cup that will not pass from him. He must drink from the pressed grapes of the vine-press of the wrath of God. If he is to save the world, he must be utterly crushed.

What strange work is set before us in Holy Week at Golgotha! But what do we need to do as we watch these events unfold? Mark answers his own question. Forget the crowds shouting hosanna one day and crucify the next; forget the disciples who forsook Jesus and fled, forget the cynics who hail him as king, or the thieves and soldiers who mock him. There is an individual who stands out from the crowd and sees differently: the centurion. Maybe he is in charge of the soldiers who have crucified Jesus. Watching, this gentile Roman, this Jew-hater, this military man whose trade is power and cruelty, has an epiphany. ‘Surely, this man was the Son of God.’ Not just innocent, not just a good man, but the Son of God. The centurion isn’t a bystander now. He has become a participant whose words form the climax of the entire Gospel in one of the Bible’s great recognition-scenes. Mark sees this not just as one man’s confession of faith but as speaking for all humanity, for us as we acknowledge the majesty of this crucified Messiah. Bach took it this way when he gave these immortal words to the full chorus in his St Matthew Passion, the two greatest bars of music ever written. The only reason Mark is writing his Gospel is to make believers out of us, to draw us from being bystanders to participants as we become subjects of God’s kingdom and follow the crucified Lord. In last week’s preacher’s words, God renounces all power but the power of love, yet faith is possible in the teeth of suffering and ridicule. In the darkness, we can still believe.

Which means that we cannot simply watch him hanging there, but must summon up an act of faith that acclaims him as our Lord, and puts right our perspective on the world as God’s, with ourselves as loyal followers and subjects. To mould the church’s faith and our own in this cross-shaped way is the only reason we observe Holy Week with such care and devotion. By remembering in this way, we place the cross at the very centre of our lives, this everlasting sign of God’s ‘tender love towards mankind’, this saving death that sets us free to live again, this life freely poured out for us. Yes, indeed. ‘It is a thing most wonderful’.

Durham Cathedral, Palm Sunday 2015
Amos 8.9-12, Mark 15.33-41

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