He saw how he breathed his last

May 21, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Mark 15:33-39.

At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look, he is calling Elijah.” One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Mark has infused this scene with symbolism. Darkness at midday was associated with “suffering, mourning, and judgment” according to Borg in Jesus and was used numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. God and the whole cosmos are mourning the agony of Jesus and, at the same time, passing judgment on those who crucified him — the Jewish authorities and the Roman overseers. God used the prophet Amos to warn, “On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight.”

It’s interesting that Jesus used his native Aramaic tongue to call out to God instead of Hebrew. In times of crushing pain or grief we tend to use our most base, often terse, expressions that sometimes are no more than groanings from our spirit. Some scholars believe that Mark used “Eloi” to make sense of the bystanders who mistakenly heard Jesus calling upon Elijah instead of God.

The veil of the inner sanctuary of the temple was torn in two symbolizing that nothing now separated God from man. Previously only one privileged person, the high priest, could enter the inner sanctuary on one day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Now God would be accessible to anyone and everyone. However, it was also a judgment on the old order represented by the temple which probably had been destroyed about the time Mark as writing. Jesus is the new temple.

Jesus gave one last loud cry. Was it a wordless groan or scream? In John’s gospel Jesus last uttered, “It is finished” as one word. Barclay believes that “Jesus died with the cry of triumph on his lips, his task accomplished, his work completed, his victory won.” What did the centurion see or hear that led him to recognize at once that Jesus was the Son of God? Matthew tells us that the centurion and others concluded, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” as the earth quaked, tombs opened, and the saints were raised. In Luke’s gospel the centurion says, “This man was innocent beyond doubt.” John, who was present in his gospel, makes no mention of the centurion. All quite different accounts, but Mark’s gospel was the first written and the one most drawn from the memories of eye witnesses.

The centurion was the person in closest proximity to Jesus. He clearly heard Jesus’ cry of despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” unlike the bystanders at a distance who misunderstood what Jesus said. Jesus’ humanity couldn’t be more vividly depicted as he cried out in his distress, “Where are you, why have you abandoned me?” He didn’t address God as his Father as he usually did. Not God his Father, his protector, but God as a receding, distant deity. Then the centurion saw something that no one else did as Jesus drew his last breath. As Jesus penetrated the veil between life and death, as the old temple was supplanted by the new, he left behind his human form and assumed his divine nature. With his last breath Jesus saw the encircling love of his Father. The expression of agony and bewilderment of abandonment transformed into beatific peace and happiness upon reunion with his Father. That’s what I think the centurion saw and why he suddenly realized that Jesus was the Son of God. He saw Jesus transformed as he crossed over from human to divine.

At least this is the only way I can make sense of the polarity in these few short sentences in which Jesus cried out in despair, a human emotion I can easily identify with, to the first time that another person recognizes him as the Son of God. Utterly human to sublimely divine. A transformation that led the centurion, a pagan Gentile, to become the first Christian.



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