Thursday, April 1, 2010

Good Friday: a day of pain and suffering

Mark 15.1-47. We refer to today as Good Friday out of sheer habit and familiarity. There was nothing "good" about it in one sense, but in another today was the day, as Christians have affirmed for centuries, when, despite its horror, the redemption of the world was accomplished. Many of us have a preunderstanding about today based on a cultural exposure to Christianity, arising out of centuries of Christian observance and of theological reflection about the death of Jesus, although that is less and less the case with each passing generation.

The best known understanding of Jesus' death emphasizes its substitutionary sacrificial nature: he died for the sins of the world because we are all sinners. In order for God to forgive sins, such a sacrifice must be made but it would not have been adequate for any ordinary human being to have been the sacrifice, because such a person, as a sinner, could only be dying for their own sins. Therefore the sacrifice must not be a sinner, but a perfect human being. Only Jesus, who was not only human but the Son of God, was perfect, sinless and without blemish. Thus he is the sacrifice acceptable to God and the sacrifice which makes our forgiveness possible.

For most of us this understanding is part of the landscape of our religious upbringing and is reinforced by our hymns and liturgies which commonly use the language of substitutionary sacrifice. It has become the official line and is defended by the church, including many who hold a degree of scepticism towards it.

We need, therefore to recognise that this is not the only Christian understanding of Jesus' death and that it took more than a thousand years for it to become dominant, appearing in its current form for the first time in a book by Anselm of Canterbury in 1097. This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says, even given its use of sacrificial language: the N.T. writers also see Jesus' execution as the domination system's "no" to Jesus (and God), as a defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation, and a disclosure of the depth of God's love for us.

As we approach today, then, we might need to aware of how our theological preconceptions can get in the way of what Mark is saying. Perhaps it would help us to recognise that we often see Jesus' death as a composite of the gospels as we do with Christmas, getting our inns, angels, shepherds and wise men all mixed up. Each narrative differs in some respects: only Matthew has Pilate washing his hands of Jesus and the cry of the crowd His blood be upon us and our children. Only Luke has Jesus appearing before Herod Antipas as well as three of the "last" words of Jesus. In John's gospel we have much more dialogue between Jesus and Pilate and John also adds more "last" words as Jesus addresses his mother and John. In addition our composite understanding is informed by the language of St. Paul (whose letters predate the gospels) and the author of the letter to the Hebrews where Jesus is the Great High Priest who offers himself as a sacrifice. Paul's letters are not narratives, though, and thus do not include a story of Good Friday. Indeed Paul's language contain a number of interpretations of the significance of Jesus' death.

Borg and Crossan argue that in order to understand Mark we need to set aside all these filters.

Even so, although Mark's Gospel is the earliest, we must not imagine his story to be free of post-Easter interpretation because it combines retrospective interpretation with history remembered. However, there is no theology of substitutionary sacrifice in Mark's gospel: dying for the sins of the world is not there at all in Mark. Even when Jesus says in 10.45 that he came to give his life as a ransom for many the Greek word translated as sacrifice (lutron) is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin but to refer to payment made to liberate captives or slaves. A lutron is a means of liberation from bondage. So now we have The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a means of liberation for many. The difference may seem subtle, but it is there. Could this be semantics and the liberation is actually from sin? Of course that interpretation could be made, but it is not what Mark is saying.

Mark tells his story in bite-sized chunks of three hours to reflect the Roman military watches (or maybe his original audience had a limited concentration span.)

6am to 9am: As day breaks, the local collaborators - chief priests, elders and scribes - hand Jesus over to Pilate who interrogates him. Are you the King of the Jews? with some mocking emphasis on you no doubt. We might also hear a mocking tone in Jesus' response You say so. Jesus says nothing else which would surely have enraged a man like Pilate, unused to insubordination. Jesus shows courage in this strategy.

Pilate then offers to release Barabbas instead of Jesus. This seems an odd thing to do with its risk of releasing a known rebel. Perhaps we need to remember who the first audience was for Mark's Gospel in AD70. Both Barabbas and Jesus defied imperial authority: Barabbas advocated violent resistance and Jesus, non-violent resistance. By the year AD66 the Jerusalem crowd had chosen Barabbas' way and the Roman destruction of the temple would still have been fresh in the minds of Mark's audience. Mark uses this "incident" to underline a point.

Mark tells us the the temple authorities stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. These were not the same crowds who had heard Jesus with supportive delight during the week: Mark gives us no reason to believe that this crowd had turned against Jesus, indeed it is highly unlikely that the earlier crowd, so supportive of Jesus would be allowed into Herod's palace. This crowd, stirred up by the chief priests, would have been likely to have been much smaller and was probably a version of rent-a-mob provided by the authorities. So when Pilate asks Then what do you want me to do with the man you call King of the Jews, the crowd respond Crucify him.

Jesus is handed over to Pilate's soldiers who, in time honoured fashion, torture and humiliate him. Then they conduct a mock coronation, dressing him in a purple robe, placing a crown of thorns on his head and hailing him King of the Jews. Then the humiliation continues as they strike him and spit on him, then they undress him again and lead him out to be crucified. Exhausted as he was, Jesus was unable to carry the bar of his cross to the place of execution and a passer by, Simon of Cyrene, was press-ganged to help.

9am to Noon: Mark doesn't bother with the details of the crucifixion. He didn't need to because his community were all too familiar with this process of imperial terrorism. This was a barbaric, agonising and drawn-out punishment, its public nature aimed to be a deterrent. What made it the supreme punishment was not just the amount of suffering or even humiliation involved but the idea that there might not even be enough left for burial: victims were often crucified low enough to the ground that not only carrion birds but scavenging dogs could reach them and they were often left on the cross until little was left of their bodies for burial.

On the cross an inscription was placed: The King of the Jews. Pilate surely intended it to be derisive although it has served to be accurate from the vantage point of Christianity. Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two bandits, not robbers or thieves. Bandits is a term commonly used for guerrillas or freedom-fighters so their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for those who systematically refused to accept imperial Roman authority. Ordinary criminals were not executed.

Noon to 3pm Jesus has been on the cross for three hours and the next three hours are dealt with simply in the phrase When it was noon, darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon. As astronomers can tell us exactly when and where eclipses have taken place Mark can not be referring to such darkness. We could argue for a particular intervention by God at this point but such a darkness would not have gone unremarked in contemporary writings and there is no such reference. Instead the darkness is a byproduct of Mark's use of religious symbolism. In the ancient world, highly significant events on earth were were accompanied by signs in the sky and such images appeared in Mark's own sacred text, the Jewish scriptures. What was Mark's intention? To convey grief? Suffering? Mourning? Judgement?

3pm to 6pm At 3pm or shortly thereafter Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Mark has Jesus uttering a cry of desolation My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? in a quotation from Ps 22. In another piece of symbolism Mark gives us the curtain of the temple, the curtain which separated the holiest place from the rest of the sanctuary, tearing in two - access to the presence of God is now open and Jesus has allowed access to God apart from the temple.

At the same time the centurion guarding the cross exclaims Truly this man was the son of God. This is most significant because according to Roman imperial theology the emperor was Son of God, one who brought salvation and peace on earth. Now, however, a representative of Rome affirms that this man Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God.

Where are Jesus' followers at this point? The men have fled leaving the faithful women who can only watch from behind the barriers. It is these and other women disciples who are the key players in the story from now on. They witness Jesus death; they follow the body and note where it is buried; they are the first to go to the tomb on the Sunday for completion of funeral rites and experience the news of Easter. Are they there merely because they would not arouse the suspicion of the authorities when the men would have, or is there another reason? Jewish and Gentile women of this period were subservient. Jesus and the early Christian movement subverted the conventions of the day. Sadly the church has denied this subversion but it is prominently here for all to see in this most significant of elements in the climactic events of Jesus' execution.

There is a remarkable departure from the standard practice as Joseph of Arimathea seeks and gains permission to take the body down and remove it for burial. Mark has Joseph as a respected member of the council who was also waiting for the Kingdom of God and we can perhaps surmise a sympathy for Jesus here. In the other gospels his status is changed to that of an active disciple. Whatever Joseph's history the stage is now set for Easter morning.