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What does it all mean?

Australian Country Landscape and a pushbike

Passion Sunday - April 1 2012
Gospel: Mark Chapters 14 and 15

My mum taught primary school. One year, just before Easter, she read her Year 5 students the Gospel of Mark. That is; at length, she read them the story of the Passion, beginning to end.

This is not usual in Australia, where we focus on Hot Cross Buns, the  Easter Bunny and his eggs, and now, the Easter Bilby; as well as the holiday. Even in church, it is sometimes unusual to “hear the whole story” in one go.

Mum’s kids were appalled. “Mrs. Prior, why did they do that to him?” They were very clear in their response that this death was underserved.

The story is brutal.

It takes little reflection to see the  impending doom and inevitability. He is anointed for death. (14:3ff) He is betrayed. (14:10) He knows the betrayal, (14:17) and yet still eats with his betrayer. He is deserted by the disciples. (14:50) He is denied. (14:66) He is crucified.  He is deserted by God! (15:34) At the end, though, the most pagan, least likely sympathetic observer of them all says, “Truly, this man was God’s son.” (15:39)

He is buried.  We know from Mark 16:1-8 that he is not seen again. Mark has no resurrection appearance of the conventional kind; in the gospels, that’s added by Matthew and Luke, and then John.

There is no happy ending here. In the War of the Worlds movie that starred Tom Cruise, there is utter destruction, apocalypse, and the loss of a son. But at the end, Cruise walks down a stunningly beautiful, untouched avenue of the American Dream, and is reunited with his lost son.

In Mark, those who find the empty tomb, flee in fear. There is no happy ending.  It is bitterly true to life, leaving us with appalled questions, and struggling to see any future.

Bill Loader, this week, says two things that stand out for me about the narrative.

It is possible to read Mark as though this is simply a report of a Roman trial and brutal atrocity. This is surely appropriate. Let the story speak for itself. When we do so, however, we soon discover that the story has already undergone considerable reflection. Mark is not just describing; he is portraying something. We always convey meaning by the way we describe. It was no different with Mark. Mark is also doing much more than telling the story. He is repeating it. Much of it has been told and retold and reflected upon for three to four decades before it reached Mark. Behind those decades are events whose shape is still preserved in the narrative.

Reading and rereading the two chapters, I feel the blockiness of the narrative. It is nuggets of tradition linked together by Mark. The narrative is not smoothed out and connected in the way we would write a novel today. It is comic-book-like, small graphic panels with a few words below each one. At the end, the centurion, rugged and cynical, is drawn with amazement on his face. “Truly, this man was God’s son.”

Secondly, thirty or forty years after Jesus death, there is still no theory of atonement.

Mark's account... has no reference to models of atonement. It only has the suffering, in colouring and contours drawn from the Psalms.  (Loader)

I think this is hugely important. An atonement theory is a rationalisation. It is the explanation by one person—maybe taken up and adopted by many—of what Jesus’ story means, and how the death of Jesus “works;”  what it does, if you like. There is a consequence.

Ransom Theory, Christus Victor, Satisfaction Theory... all these are the beginning of the domestication of the story of Jesus! We might intend that they seek to under-stand the death of Jesus; literally, to stand under it, so that we can make sense of it. But, in fact, they take control of it, standing over it! They apply the cultural conventions of a time and place and lay them over Jesus. “Why a God Man?” asked Anselm in the 11th century, and applied the explanation of satisfaction; God’s honour which needed to be appeased. Jesus, and God, are packaged into the social conventions of the eleventh century.

My growing up was done in the atonement environment of Penal Substitution.  I was red like a fruit fly maggot growing in a tomato. I had never heard of Penal Substitution; it was all there was; the only explanation I ever heard. I remember someone asking me, as a young adult, if I felt penal substitution was still an appropriate Christology for today, and told him I’d never heard of such a thing. “We don’t need theories,” I said, “the bible is plain in its teaching.”  Then, I skilfully outlined for him, not the bible, but the theory of penal substitution.

There is a sense in which Mark 14 and 15 rip the neat packaging of atonement theory off my theology, and confront me with the raw, bleeding story of Jesus. True, “Mark is not just describing...” He is bringing deep reflection, and some subtle placement of the features of the story.

The story of Peter’s betrayal begins in 15:54, when he is in the courtyard, warming himself. The action immediately switches to Jesus who is asked, in verse 61,

Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’62Jesus said, ‘I am; and
“you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power”,
and “coming with the clouds of heaven.” ’

We switch back to Peter, who does the opposite of this straight answer, and begins his denial of who he is, and of his Lord. This is the mark of a master story teller.

Despite this rhetorical skill, the story is the opposite of an explanatory theory. It simply shows the brutality and hopelessness of the situation. It leaves us with the stunned grief of a Good Friday. Even the Easter morning story is still Good Friday in its terror and lack of understanding.

It confronts us with the emptiness and meaninglessness of life, and all its absurdity. We echo Jesus’ cry, “God, why have you abandoned me.” Mark is no explanation of the horror and emptiness of the world; it drags us into an even deeper confrontation with the despair of life and death and hopelessness. Bill says

It is not really a story to be remembered so much as a story to be lived with and lived through, in which we can recognise and engage its repeated forms in today's world and in ourselves.

I seem to be spending a lot of time, at the moment, with people living in traumatic circumstances. There have been moments when I have felt like it will drag me under, too, despite the fact that I am barely on the edges of their experiences. We all want rescuing and healing from trauma like this, but Bill, and Mark, seem to be suggesting that the rescue is not from, but by living through, in some sense. The healing of Jesus is gained by joining him and his sufferings, as much as it is about being healed by him. (The one who loses his life will save it...?)

Our every instinct is to reject this. It is too hard. We need explanation and comfort. We crave some kind of happy ending; or at least, something we can live with.

We also need  aphorisms, illustrations, and jargon, and systems which let us talk to each other in a timely fashion. We cannot simply live in an amorphous mass of pain. We need to begin to make sense and find meaning.  But the jargon and systems need to come from experience; someone else's jargon cannot become our experience.

I remember when we were discussing a book on near death experiences in our home group. Ruth, aged ten, wanted to know what it was all about; she was a little frightened. Her mother said, “The book is like a Panadol for people who are scared of dying.”

In its context, the saying neatly told a little girl that she did not have to worry about this stuff—  yet. Later, she would realise that although it came from her mother’s dearly won peace about life and death, it was also a little Panadol for her; she would have to face the issue of death, and do her own theology of dying.

Mark 14 and 15, even chapter 16, bring us into doing our own theology. It is true that the story is loaded with allusions and references. It is true that the “extended introduction” (Kähler?)  to the passion diagnoses the world as a place needing to be freed from the tyranny of rulers and brought into the vision of the kingdom.  Jesus shows us that vision. But we are faced squarely with a death, the apparent destruction of that vision, and the loss of the leader.

The clear implication is that we cannot find the vision, or enter the kingdom, unless we face this head on. Despite all our best intentions, all our aspirations, we are about to fail. Like Peter we swear that ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ (14:29)

We are so busy protesting our loyalty, that we miss what is also said at that time; his words “28 ... after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” (14:28) They mean nothing. And when the angel tells the women in chapter 16, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you," we miss that, too. We make up shorter or longer endings to the gospel that seek to drag him back with us in the flesh.

But maybe we one day understand going back to Galilee as going back to the teachings of Galilee; living light on the road, with compassion and gentleness, always risking death, always risking being brought back to Golgotha. It is there we will meet him. It is there we will find a meaning in life.

What I am doing, of course, is beginning to write my own theory of atonement. I am making sense of the life and death of Jesus. I am beginning to systematise it. But it is done out of my experience of loss and alienation and despair. It fits my time. It is not a theory out of a book. Instead, it is the place where I might actually meet Jesus.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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