This is holy ground. This blood-stained, dusty, rock-hard earth. This killing-hill where Romans crucified dozens, maybe hundreds, of Jewish law-breakers. This skull-mound, outside Jerusalem city walls, infamous forever because of One prisoner executed here.
We reach this place, Mark writes, “When [the Jewish soldiers] were finally tired of mocking [Jesus], they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified (15:20). Mark continues with a report that reads like choppy headline news with few details.
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross (15:21).
Jesus would have been boxed in by four Roman soldiers with a servant carrying a placard: THE KING OF THE JEWS. At some point en route, it became obvious Jesus was too weakened to carry his cross. Simon was a Jew from North Africa present for Passover. If Simon’s Rufus is the Rufus Paul mentions in Romans 16:13, this family became believers. Did being forced to carry Christ’s cross eventually lead Simon, and then his sons, to faith?
They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get. It was the third hour when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left (15:22-27).
“They” were Jerusalem women who offered crucified Jews a drug to dull the pain. The Greek tense suggests they tried several times to give Jesus a drink. Jesus refused it. Mark doesn’t explain why.
Such awful agony Mark glosses over when he writes, “And they crucified him”! The Jewish historian Josephus calls it “the most wretched of all ways of dying.” Not the nails, but his body sagging as he hung, made breathing an unrelenting struggle. (For a further description of Christ’s crucifixion, see http://www.alfredplacechurch.org.uk/index.php/sermons/mark/mark-15/1524-25-the-crucifixion-of-christ/.) Eventually death would come from suffocation. But not yet; according to Mark it’s 9 a.m.
Humiliation accompanied suffering. Before they drove the spikes, soldiers stripped the prisoner. Then, after hanging Jesus up, they gambled for his clothes beneath his cross. A perk for the soldiers’ assigned despicable work. Over Jesus’ head they posted the placard with his crime. Common thieves flanked him on both sides.
We might claim the charge false. But in fact he was “the King of the Jews”, even King of the Romans. He was, and remains today, a deadly threat to every authority that refuses to bow. Yet, that day, he was merely a message from Pilate declaring what Rome did with “would be” kings.
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him (15:28-32).
Humiliation continued. Passover pilgrims, packing the nearby road, threw Jesus’ supposed words in his face. Chief priests and law-teachers jeered. “Messiah, Israel’s King, jump off the cross so we can see and believe in you!” Even the dying thieves sneered between suffocating breaths.
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”– which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:33-39).
From noon until three eerie darkness shrouded the city. An angry storm erupting. Creation itself revolting. As if God the Father turned away the light of his face from his Son. Suddenly a heartrending, mournful voice cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Literally hell for the King of heaven. Some misunderstood, thinking he was calling Elijah. They looked for a miracle from the long-gone prophet. None came.
Instead, in the anguish of suffocating death and with a loud cry, “Jesus breathed his last.” The temple curtain tore open top to bottom. At the cross a silent moment. Mourners looked closely. No, Jesus wasn’t breathing. Finally, the Roman centurion, closest witness, pondering the fearful awe of the moment and how Jesus had died, declared, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid (15:40-47),
Mark reveals here what he hasn’t throughout his writing: several women at the cross “had followed [Jesus] and cared for his needs.” Many other women also were there. Unheralded they have played a vital role in Jesus’ ministry. They will again.
But now, according to Jewish law, Jesus had to be buried before sundown. Joseph of Arimathea, of whom we know nothing except that he belonged to the Jewish Sanhedrin and obviously honored Jesus, approached Pilate for Jesus’ body. After ascertaining Jesus was indeed dead, Pilate permitted it. Joseph painstakingly lowered the body, carefully wrapped it in newly-bought linen, and gently laid it in a tomb, which he sealed shut with a large stone. Both Marys looked on.
* * * * *
Unless Mark totally made up this narrative, there can be no doubt Jesus died. The question is: why? Certainly he had the power to blow away his enemies the way he’d driven out demons! And why didn’t Mark explain?
I think Mark didn’t tell us why Jesus died because he wanted us to stand at the cross confused and shaken and ask what the disciples must have: Why? Why did Jesus who claimed to be Messiah, who announced God’s kingdom at hand, who opened blind eyes, stilled a storm, and raised a dead girl . . .
WHY DID HE DIE LIKE THAT?
Easy to spout out learned answers. Better to ponder them with our mind focused on Mark’s narrative. If it stuns a bit, so much the better . . .