By Hollywood standards, Mark’s account of the Passion suffers from understatement. He leaves the gore and the sweat and the agony largely to our imagination.
Movie directors have retold the story in more graphic ways. They have frequently provided long sequences of torture. They have included isolated shots of Mary and Mary Magdalene shattered by the sight of Jesus’ suffering. And they have lingered on closeups of Jesus’ face clenched in holy agony.
Mark offers none of these touches. And he knows exactly what he’s doing.
His refusal to include detailed descriptions of torture and the process of crucifixion has nothing to do with censoring extreme violence. He is not striving to make the story acceptable for younger and more sensitive audiences.
Mark wants simply to tell the truth. And a Hollywood-like emphasis on the physical details of Jesus’ suffering and the cruelty of his tormentors would have been a distraction from that truth.
And here’s the truth Mark wants us to hear. God is doing a mighty work in the most unlikely set of circumstances anyone could possibly have imagined. Mark wants to help us see what God is doing in and through Jesus’ death.
Mark never intended us to look at Jesus’ death in isolation from his life and his resurrection. So, today, as we enter Holy Week, let’s focus on the meaning of Jesus’ death in light of the resurrection.
Notice how I said that: the meaning of Jesus’ death in light of the resurrection. Strictly speaking, considering the death of Jesus in isolation from the resurrection would give us a distorted picture of what God is doing in the Passion.
For instance, some Christians think that Jesus’ death is a punishment for our sins. They believe that Jesus is our substitute. He satisfies God’s justified wrath at us by taking the death penalty that is rightfully ours. His death gets us off the hook for our own wrongdoing and opens the gates of Paradise for us when we die.
Let’s approach the Cross from another perspective. God became human in Jesus to make the whole creation new. In Jesus God embraces the world to heal it. As the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—said, Christ saves all that he assumes. Or, what he does not assume he does not redeem.
In other words, as soon as God became flesh—as soon as Christ embraced this fractured, wounded, aching universe—he was already on the path toward Resurrection. That path would have many unexpected twists and turns, and Jesus could take a number of alternative routes along the way. But to arrive finally at Resurrection, every path led unavoidably through death.
Our most severe wound—the enduring lesion at the core of our souls—is a persistent sense of disconnect. We all yearn for connections. Our souls wither without them. And yet, we struggle to make and to sustain them.
Deep, genuine relationship comes only with vulnerability. To be known, to be accepted, to be connected requires that we open our deepest selves to someone else. And with vulnerability comes the risk of rejection. This is true for us. And this is true for God in Christ.
If sin were our only problem—the only problem that some seem to think that the cross solves—then Jesus’ death is a simple transaction. We made a mistake. Jesus will clean up our mistake so long as we admit that we made a mistake.
But strictly speaking, we have a far deeper problem. Shame. As Brene Brown put it somewhere, we don’t just think, “I made a mistake.” We fear, “I am a mistake.” If anybody really gets to know me, they’ll reject me. So it’s better to hide.
Deep down, many of us baptized, church-going people believe that God just might see us as a mistake. Sure, God forgave us on the cross. He just doesn’t like us very much. Because Jesus died he tolerates our presence.
From the cross Jesus begins healing our deepest wound. Our great disconnect. And that is why he prays Psalm 22. We hear him say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
Every day Jesus prayed the Psalms. He probably knew them all by heart. And in his agony he prayed the Psalm that best articulated what God was doing in and through him.
Jesus was not expressing his despair. He had not succumbed to hopelessness. However, he had embraced our own sense of disconnect and shame and fear without reserve. Our pain and loneliness and isolation became his own. Remember, what he does not assume he does not redeem.
As Psalm 22 unfolds, we hear the following verses: “You have rescued me.” “He did not hide his face from me.” Future generations will “proclaim his deliverance.”
His choice of Psalm 22 is more than self-expression, but not less. Psalm 22 articulates for Jesus both his experience and his enduring connection to God, his sense of desolation and his hope in God. It articulates with clarity what God is doing through him at precisely the moment that this seems least likely, even preposterous.
And this is what the cross tells you and me. Even when we’ve made a hash of our job, or when the lunatic we generally manage to keep hidden in our inner closets breaks loose to romp naked on our neighbor’s front yard, or when we’re convinced that our best efforts have turned our children into serial ax murderers, God has been there. With us.
He already knew who we were before he showed up. If we can just let go of our inner lunatic, we can take hold of the deep connection that Christ is making with us. That connection is eternal life.
This sermon was preached at St. James Episcopal Church in Alexandria, LA.