Friday, September 4, 2009

Come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe

Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

- Mark 15:22-32

Jesus' humiliation continues with more mocking, derision, and brutality. In this horrific place, the place of the skull, they offer him wine mixed with myrrh to help to dull his pain and suffering, but this he refuses. He is going the whole way through his suffering of the torments the world has to offer. He will share them all with us without dulling himself to the harm and evil and pain of the world. The soldiers cast lots for his clothing and possessions, which was their right as the squad of executioners. There is nothing left to him of his own, save his Person, his reality, his identity. And that is derided and mocked. The division of and casting lots for his clothing is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalm 22:18.

"The King of the Jews" is the inscription on the cross, in the place where charges were usually written against the prisoners being executed. Crucifixion, which was a horrible means of execution, was reserved for rebellious slaves, violent criminals, and those charged with high treason. For the Jewish authorities, Jesus is condemned for blasphemy. But he is executed by the Roman authorities as a potential political agitator. Ironically, it is Barabbas, the insurrectionist, who has been given a reprieve by the crowds instead of Jesus.

We are told here that two bandits are crucified on either side of Jesus. My study bible notes that the ancient Jewish historian Josephus defines robbers as insurrectionists, that is, militant nationalist Jews who fought against Romans and Jewish collaborators. So, there is one more layer of irony and contradiction in this story of who is reprieved and who has been crucified. We are also told that those who pass by him mock him - the crowd continues in its derision and humiliation of Jesus, even at this lowest moment of catastrophic hurt and spiritual disaster. And so do the chief priests and scribes, claiming that if he saved himself now they would believe! And the robbers who are crucified with him do so also. There is nowhere for Jesus to find comfort. He is alone in this darkest hour. Mark says he is crucified in the "third hour" or 9:00 A.M. (The gospel of John puts it closer to noon.) This story is very specific, but the behaviors we read are all so known to us; they are universal.

Those who are familiar with the rules of prayer understand the third hour to be one of the times of the hourly offices. I often use these practices, which are continued from Jewish tradition, for myself. At this hour, I will remember this moment of crucifixion, and pray to be aware of the ways in which the world responds to truth and to goodness with derision, harm, brutality. We pray that the Person of Jesus be with us to sanctify, even in the darkest of hours, the way we are to go forward and to live our lives, and to guide our steps as he has been through it all before us. This sad, brutal hour should be remembered as the time our Lord gave himself so fully to us; God - according to what we read in these gospels and in the person of Jesus - has gone to the depths of human experience so that his life is forever shared with us. We remember that, in accordance with the teachings we have read, it is not the world that defiles, but the Lord who sanctifies, wherever we are.

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