The Apocalyptic Cross in Mark’s Gospel

Mark 15:33-41

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Today is the next to last sermon in a series of sermons called “Apocalypse Then.”  You have been listening patiently for about a month and a half to sermons about the meaning of the apocalypse and apocalyptic texts.  So today with this next to last sermon I can say definitively:  “the end is near!”

Apocalypse then has been a series of sermons devoted to understanding what apocalyptic texts meant in their own day as a prelude to hearing what they might mean to us today.  A series like this is needed because we live in a culture fascinated by the more lurid and spectacular features of apocalypses:  the four horsemen of Revelation, rapture texts and being left behind, or the cosmic conflagration of Armageddon.  What we have been uncovering here is that apocalypses have influenced a lot of New Testament literature:  including Paul’s letters and the gospels.  In fact, to speak of Jesus as resurrected from the dead is already an apocalyptic claim.  Over the last weeks, the series of sermons has helped us see past this spectacular facade to see how apocalyptic has affected the way we speak of good news.

Last week I made the case that we need to think carefully not just about what apocalypses portray, but about what apocalypses do.  Apocalypse comes from a Greek word meaning to reveal, to unveil.  The proper focus of apocalypses, and of related apocalyptic writings, is to reveal something about God and God’s purposes.  In fact, what they reveal about God is usually disclosed as a way of gaining a transcendent perspective on some present difficulty or anomaly.  It can be tempting to read the more spectacular features of apocalyptic writings and fixate on their more vivid characteristics:  seven seals, the end of the world, or beasts with mysteriously numbered names.  We miss the point spectacularly, however, when we do not get at the purposes of apocalyptic writings.  That purpose goes deep:  apocalypses do what they say, they reveal—and they reveal God amidst difficult circumstances.

So today, with this sermon, we turn not to an apocalypse, but a writing profoundly influenced by apocalyptic way of thinking:  Mark’s gospel and the death of Jesus in chapter 15.  I intend to recount the death of Jesus and highlight its apocalyptic character.  Now this may seem counterintuitive.  We usually associate the death of Jesus on the cross with Lent.  Jesus’ death is about my personal sin, my guilt, and Jesus’ heroic, sacrificial endurance of pain and torture for my sake.  For as long as we can remember, this Lenten orientation to Jesus’ death has always been personal and had no trace of this cosmic end of the world stuff.  The cross is Lent, and Jesus’ death for me; but apocalypses—well, they are something quite different.

But as soon as we start looking closely at our text, Mark 15:33-41, Jesus’ death does not really conform to expectations.  And this is just as true today, as it was in the ancient world.  In fact, Yale Prof. Adela Yarbro Collins helps us by comparing Jesus’ death here to other kinds of death in the Greco-Roman world and in the religious orbit of early Judaism as well as the Christianity that emerged out of it.

Prof. Collins points out that the Greco-Roman world placed much stock on stories of the noble death.  The classic example is the death of Socrates.  We may recall that the great philosopher ran afoul of the leaders of the city of Athens.  Socrates was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth of the city.  As a philosopher, Socrates intends to lead a consequential life.  He had questioned openly the assumptions of his fellow citizens and invited them to open dialogue about the truth they claim to know.  But having alienated them in the pursuit of that truth, he willingly accepts the verdict they give:  Socrates should die.  In a surprising scene where he rejects the option of exile, Socrates willingly drinks the hemlock that kills him—and he does so in a way that freely and openly welcomes death in the presence of his students.  The philosopher’s death, accepted freely and willingly, becomes a type of “noble death” in the ancient world.

While not identical, there is an interesting parallel in early Judaism and emerging Christianity.  In the centuries before Christ, there is the story of the Jewish Maccabees, who resist the Hellenizing tendencies of their context.  When a certain Greek ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes demands that Jews give up certain Jewish dietary practices, the Maccabees become known for their resistance.  One of the books of the Maccabees recalls the resistance of a mother and her seven sons, who are threatened with torture and loss of life if they fail to relinquish their ancient ways.  The stories are graphic for their portrayal of torture, but what makes them remarkable is the nearly joyful way in which the successive members of this family hold to their faith in the face of the most awful treatment at the hands of their Greek overlords.  Their martyrdom, their strong and joyful witness becomes a religious model for dealing with suffering and death.  In death, they are virtuous examples.

These summaries from Prof. Collins are helpful.  They help us see ways in which people deal with death in the literature of the time.  But the story of Jesus is so different.  Mark does not recount Jesus’ death as something like a Greek philosopher’s noble death.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus resolved to follow the Father’s will—a noble thing to be sure.  Yet Jesus also prays in the Garden darkness that this cup pass from him.  The night before his death, Jesus still hopes and prays for a different outcome than death—it is in his eyes decisively unwelcome.  As for Jesus’ death itself, it is not the same as some serene philosopher’s death either.  Jesus cries out twice on the cross, the second time a wordless shout that marks his death.  Jesus dies not with his disciples close by, but alone–the only ones of his supporters are women who are afraid even to stand close by (15:40).  Whatever Jesus’ death is in Mark 15, it is not the noble death of the philosopher.

What may be more surprising is that Jesus’ death in Mark is also not the same as the virtuous example of the martyr’s death.  Jesus’ death is not described like those of the Maccabean martyrs, or even the later Christian martyrs, who march to their deaths before the empire’s torturers and executioners in confident faith for all to see.  Again Jesus’ death is marked by cries and shouts.  The first cry is not a confession of faith, but a cry of abandonment to God:  “My God, My God,” Jesus cries,” why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus dies not with words of trusting faith, but with desperate cries of being Godforsaken.  Mark even underscores the point with his mention of the timing:  Jesus’ death on the cross is a relatively brief one.  While crucifixion was a public, tortuous, slow asphyxiation on the cross, Jesus’ death did not last for days as some victims’ did.  He dies surprisingly quickly.  While Jesus did resolve to go through death in obedience to God’s will, the mode of his death was not like the martyrs’ virtuous examples.

Why?  Why would Mark describe Jesus’ death in this way?  Why would Mark portray Jesus death not as noble, but ignoble, scandalous?  What is going on here at the cross?  It is not the noble death of a philosopher.  It is not the virtuous example of the martyr.  Just what is Jesus’ death about?

In Mark, the cross is an apocalyptic moment.  It is an occasion of apocalyptic revelation.  We have seen how it works.  Last week we looked at Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his gospel in Mark.  In that text, Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan only to see the heavens ripped open; a heavenly dove, a cosmic symbol of God’s brooding over the waters of creation; and a heavenly voice address Jesus:  “You are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  A heavenly tear, a cosmic symbol of creation, and a voice announcing God’s Son made for an apocalyptic theophany in Mark 1.  Now here, at the foot of the cross Mark describes the scene of Jesus death—here the temple veil is ripped from top to bottom, the voice of the centurion acclaims Jesus as God’s Son, and a cosmic symbol is given.  As Jesus dies on the cross, from noon until 3, the whole world is cast in apocalyptic darkness.

Mark wants us to understand.  Jesus’ cross is no heroic death, no virtuous example of death; it is the apocalyptic turning of the ages—an apocalyptic revelation of God.  As Jesus dies on the cross, it is accompanied with a cosmic sign from the prophet Amos:

On that day, says the Lord God,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;…

I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day. (Amos 8:9-10a, c)

In a cosmic, apocalyptic sign the world goes dark in the shadow of the cross.  God’s judgment appears, yes, but also creation’s morning—for an only son.  This death of Jesus is not about nobility or virtue.  It is a paradoxical sign of the turning of the ages that reveals the depth of divine love precisely in human weakness.

How did theologian Douglas John Hall put it?  Again, I paraphrase:


God’s revealing is simultaneously an unveiling and a veiling.  God conceals Godself under the opposite of what both religion and reason imagine God to be, namely the Almighty, the majestic transcendent, the absolutely other…. God’s otherness…is not to be found in God’s absolute distance from us but in God’s willed and costly proximity to us.


Mark’s gospel does not explain Jesus’ death—Mark is too concise and taciturn for that–but reveals God through Jesus’ death in a strange apocalyptic theophany like Amos’ Day of the Lord.  It may be hard to wrap our heads around, but in this God-forsaken, tragic, ignoble death, a painfully human and fragile death—God is there.


Princeton’s Clifton Black in his commentary on this text cites Nathan Glasser’s Schocken Passover Haggadah, where Glatzer describes these words found on a cellar’s walls in Cologne, where Jews hid from Nazis


I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when feeling it not.

I believe in God even when He is silent.


According to Mark, Black says, “so also did Jesus believe at the moment of his death.”


Jesus’ death is revealed, therefore, as of the “old age.”  For three hours, darkness reigns on earth at noon.  Jesus’ death is judgment, it is cosmic mourning, it is the final rage of creation gone awry.

Then, when Jesus dies, the darkness has already receded.  The temple veil rips as a sign of the boundary-breaking God’s changed relationship with humanity.  The centurion, the Roman centurion of all people, confesses faith.  Mark’s apocalyptic portrayal of the cross looks like this:  whatever signs of newness, of God’s intention to renew the world, emerge from the deep shadows of the incalculable revelation of the cross.

That also means we need to put some of our traditional theologizing aside here.  Mark’s portrayal is not about satisfying an angry wrathful God.  Mark’s story is not about moral examples to be followed.  It is not necessarily even about paying a ransom to the devil.  Mark’s recounting of the story is just too compact and lacking in sensationalism for any of that.  Instead Jesus’ death is the turning of the ages—a revelation of God where God should not be: in the midst of death doing a new thing.

The notion is counterintuitive, but a profound one at the heart of Christianity’s cruciform faith.  Theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:  “only grief permits newness.”

Mark’s gospel of an apocalyptic cross is therefore not just an orientation to a past, but a costly opening to a future, a new age, that draws us in our lives forward even in death’s deepest shadows.

Toward the end of his life in his Winter years, Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked which of the many buildings he designed was his favorite.  He said:  “the next one.”

It may not seem like much, but a vision of the dawning new age empowers even in the midst of the deathly hold of the old order.  It is a promise you can hold on to, even in all the darkness of the cross.

In his book on the Christian funeral, Emory’s Tom Long recalls an interesting practice of resistance among slaves in the 19th century.  Long writes:


During the time of slavery in the southern United States, slave owners were known to take Bibles away from slave preachers, fearful that the biblical message was stirring up insurrection.  There are moving accounts of these preachers standing beside open graves and leading funerals, reciting Scripture from memory while holding open folded hands as if they were cradling a Bible.


It seems all we have is a promise and open hands.  Yet I suspect Jesus would understand.  When he cries out on the cross, he laments before God his being abandoned:  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  The words he uses are the familiar words of Psalm 22.  In that moment, we see Jesus sharing in the most radical, Godforsaken state of what it means to be a human being in the face of injustice, abandonment, and death.  Yet as Adela Yarbro Collins points out, absolute despair is a retreat in silence. Jesus shouts, yes, but he shouts to God.  Jesus cries out, yes, but he cries out to God.  Jesus speaks words of Godforsaken-ness on the cross, yes, but he speaks them to God.

In doing so, his lament itself is a form of holding on to the promise.  His complaint to God makes no sense unless he holds up the promise to God and asks:  is it still good?  Is it?  The cry, the shout, the Godforsakenness all belong there—because lament is the flipside of a life lived according to promise.

In his book Meditations of the Heart, BU’s Howard Thurman expanded this idea even further to include human encounter with death as a whole.  Thurman writes:

…the glorious thing about man’s encounter with death is that fact that what a man discovers about the meaning of life as he lives it, need not undergo any change as he meets death.  It is a final tribute to the character of an individual’s living if he can die “unshriven” but full-blown as he lived.  Such a man goes down to his grave with a shout.


At Jesus’ death, at his apocalyptic death things are revealed as they really are.  It is not about nobility or virtue.  It is about the turning of the ages, the strange mysterious place that speaks from death and yet bears witness–shouting witness–to the promise.  It is a strange, shadowy place…of God’s new creation.


~Rev. Dr. David Schasa Jacobsen

Professor of Homiletics, Boston University

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