Mark’s account of the death of Jesus is the bleakest of the four gospels, yet it evokes a surprising sense of awe.
Jesus dies utterly alone. All his disciples have fled out of fear of the authorities. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ mother being at the foot of the cross, as John does. Only three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Jose, and Salome, witness his death. They do so from a distance.
In Mark a barrage of abuse accompanies Jesus in his death. In the Roman judgment hall, the Roman soldiers mock him. They spit on him and pay mock homage. The passers-by at the crucifixion site deride him. The priests and scribes witnessing his death mock him as well. In Mark both of the bandits crucified with him also taunt him. There is no mention of the repentant thief that we find in Luke.
Jesus’s final words in Mark are the quotation from Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1) Jesus seems to be saying that even God his Father has abandoned him. The bystanders misunderstand and therefore distort this final cry of desolation. They think Jesus is calling on Elijah to come to his rescue.
These final words in Mark contrast sharply with Jesus’s last words in Luke, where Jesus’ final cry is: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46). This seems to be a much more faith-filled acceptance of death than the words of Psalm 22. They follow upon Jesus’ earlier compassionate words on the cross: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
And in John, Jesus’ final words are a kind of triumphant declaration: It is finished (John 19:30). It is as if Jesus is the valiant soldier, who has achieved his assigned objective, and now in his dying breath declares: “Mission accomplished.”
There is none of these positive notes in Mark’s account. Jesus not only dies alone, but in deep darkness. Mark says a gloom descends upon the land even though it is noontime. It is as if the whole of creation is closing in on Jesus to suffocate him.
A Mystifying Turn in a Bleak Account
It is because of this bleak account that I find so surprisingly unexpected the final words in Mark on Jesus’ death. They are the words of the Roman centurion who presides over the crucifixion. Mark quotes the soldier as saying: Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39).
An alternate translation of the Greek could also be “Truly this man was a son of God.” The right translation does not concern me, even though it will some who worry this alternate translation disparages Jesus’ divinity. What jumps out at me is this startling comment from a Gentile who apparently had never had any previous contact with Jesus.*
Mark says the comment was provoked by the centurion’s observation of the way Jesus died.
This raises for me the question: What was it about the way Jesus died that would evoke such a startling comment from a bystander who had probably witnessed many a crucifixion? It seems to be all the more extraordinary given Jesus’ final words in Mark. We are left with a mystery.
If their accounts give us accurate reports on the crucifixion, then Luke’s and John’s accounts of Jesus’ dying words may give us some insight into the centurion’s reaction. Comments like those Luke and John record would have likely been highly unusual in a normal crucifixion. And given the barrage of abuse he endured, it is surprising that Jesus never responds with words of anger, cursing, and vituperation such as many a dying man on a cross might have hurled back at his abusers.
But there was something unusual about Jesus’ death that evoked this judgment from the centurion. It is as if the centurion was able to discern the presence of the divine in this moment of desolation. This is what I presume that Mark wants his readers and listeners to discern as well.
What was it that opened the centurion’s eyes to this perception? We cannot know, but as in his life so also in his death, Jesus’ actions evoked a sense of awe from some of the people who encountered him.
Two Awesome Deaths
As I read Mark’s account, I am reminded on another death where the manner in which the condemned man died results in a kind of awe from bystanders. It is the death of Socrates, as recounted in Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo. Like Jesus’ execution, Socraetes’ death too is an blatant act of injustice. But when you read Plato, you get the sense of awe that Plato and Socrates’ other companions had as they witnessed Socrates’ calm acceptance of his approaching death. They must have been mystified by it.
In Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, there are not the notes of placid calmness that we find in Plato. Jesus’ death is much more unsettling. Mark punctures any pious Pollyanna complacency we might feel about that death. Yet Jesus’ death too issues in an emotion of awe on the part of the centurion. That is part of the drama of Mark, and part of the drama of the Christian gospel.
* I am aware some people question whether Mark records facts accurately. Is the centurion’s comment Mark’s embellishment? We can never know. But the issue of historicity does not concern me. I enter into the story as Mark tells it. And I ask the question that the story raises within me.