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Good Friday Christianity

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One of the least remarked aspects of the early Christian reporting of Jesus's death by crucifixion is the following:

Jesus let out a great cry and expired. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom Seeing this, the centurion who was standing near him when he expired said "Truly, this man was the Son of God." (Mark 15: 37-39)

Make no mistake about the implications here: a Roman soldier presiding over this ghastly execution was converted to the correct view about Jesus by observing the way he died, not by seeing him raised from death. There was something about the death of Jesus that was unique, and even revelatory, according to Mark.

That was not Paul's view of the matter, by all accounts. The epistolary Apostle goes so far as to say that if Jesus were not raised from death, then the Christian faith is literally nothing more than a vanity.

If there is no rising of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching has been vain and your faith has been vain. (First Corinthians 15: 13-14)

The consensus view is that Paul's letters were written in the mid-to late 50s, whereas Mark's Gospel was written right around 70 C.E., after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by centurions very much like the one he describes observing Jesus's death.

Some important implications of this dating are the following. It could be the case that Mark was responding directly to Paul's claims in this letter. It could be the case that he had never heard Paul speak, nor ever read this letter. It could be the case that Mark was responding to the kind of beliefs articulated by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, whether Paul was the original author of such views or simply one especially vocal proponent of them.

What is not in doubt is that the death of Jesus on a Roman cross represented a scandal with which all of his early followers had to deal. They dealt with it in many ways. We are witnessing a very significant fault-line here within the foundational texts of the New Testament, a fault-line that calls into question both the nature of Jesus's death and its ultimate meaning. It's a major theological parting of the ways, a parting easy to miss because it's all contained in the same Scripture, point for point and book for book.

Let's call it the parting of the ways between Good Friday Christianity and the Easter Sunday version.

Other Gospel writers tried to split the difference between these two versions, the one emphasizing the revelatory power of Jesus's death versus the other emphasizing the revelatory power of being raised from death. According to Matthew, a number of "saints" were raised from their graves in the same moment that the Temple curtain split and Jesus expired; it was the vision of tombs opening that caused the centurion to draw his dramatic conclusion abut Jesus (Matthew 27: 52-54). According to Luke, when the centurion saw Jesus breath his last, he concluded that the Roman authorities had made a mistake: "Surely this man was innocent!" (Luke 23:47), he says.

Because of all this confusion over the details of Jesus's dying and rising, it is worth taking a closer look at Mark's brand of Good Friday Christianity. It presents us with a shattering vision, in every way.

It all began in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night when Jesus's ministry begins to come unraveled. We are told that Judas had decided to betray his teacher, and Jesus clearly has some sense of this as well. He prays to God, reminding his heavenly father than anything is possible to God, even delivering him from the coming trial. He begs to be so delivered; he is not. Instead, the disciples he asked to stand guard and stand their ground fail him. First they fall asleep, three times; later they flee. Jesus, suddenly powerless, is swallowed up by an imposing crowd and spirited away. His disciples will not see him again.

Jesus was tortured physically and emotionally, humiliated in a way that far exceeds the merits of the case or the normal practices of Roman centurions in their provinces. Mark spares no detail, no matter how horrible. Utterly abandoned and alone, Jesus is even mocked by the two men who were crucified alongside of him; this is another of those details that is easy to miss, but horrible to imagine. (Luke could not stomach this; in his version, one man mocks Jesus, whereas the other defends him, and Jesus promises that they will meet later in paradise, Luke 23: 43). Jesus's final words are a quotation from Psalm 22, one of David's purest anguish-songs: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mark 15: 15:34). Then he expired (Luke couldn't bear this detail either; in his version, Jesus's last words are "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit," Luke 23: 46).

Mark makes a point of telling us that Jesus's disciples failed him repeatedly in the end, and failed even to be present at his death. This is shocking. Only some women who had followed him from the Galilee remained: Mary Magdalene, his mother Mary (she is called "the mother of James and Joses," but since Mark earlier tells us that these were names of two of Jesus' brothers, Mark 6:3, this seems like a coded reference to Jesus's own mother), and Salome. These three women stand with Jesus until the end, then presumably also witnessed the centurion's conversion to the correct view of things.

They also saw an unknown man who was favorably disposed to Jesus's teaching, Joseph of Arimathea, take responsibility for Jesus's corpse, and arrange for it to be buried in a nearby grave. That is why it was these three women who returned to that gravesite the next day to dress out Jesus's body properly, as they had not had time to do the day before, in the whirl of violent Roman events.

That is when they find the stone at the mouth of the cave rolled away, and a mysterious man inside who informs them that "he is not here," but rather has gone on ahead of them, returning to Galilee. They are ordered to return with this amazing news to the disciples, and especially to Peter, "but they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (Mark 16: 8).

That is how Mark's Gospel originally ended; all of the most ancient manuscripts end there. It isn't the case that Mark doesn't know of Jesus's rising; in Mark's Gospel, Jesus himself predicted it three times. Mark knows of the rising, but Mark does not want to show it to us. That's Easter Sunday Christianity, not the Good Friday version. Mark's Gospel is designed as a tragedy, and it ends as one.

(By the way, when Paul reminds his audience in Corinth that he has reported what was reported to him, he makes no mention of these three women. According to Paul, Jesus appeared after his rising to Peter, then to the twelve [whether this included Judas is not clear], then to five hundred people all at once, then to James, then to all the apostles, and then in the end, to Paul himself on the Damascus road, First Corinthians 15:3-8).

Of course the main question is, Why? Mark's Jesus expires with that question on his lips. Why would Mark tell the story this way? Who is he trying to convince? And how could he think this brutal story would be convincing to anyone?

There are several answers to this question, but the first one Mark answers pretty clearly in the passage with which I began. Mark thinks this way of telling Jesus's story, the Good Friday version, will be convincing to Romans. The centurion who witnessed Jesus's death did not need to see his rising to be convinced. Jesus' death convinced him. The Roman audience Mark had in mind was schooled on Greek tragedy, and was very familiar with the idea that certain kinds of outrageous suffering can actually be redeeming. Salvation, in these peoples's view, was through suffering, not from it.

Jesus's unique suffering is what Mark urges us to consider, and never to forget.

If you tell the story of Good Friday merely as a prelude to Easter morning, then it is impossible to feel its raw power. Mark takes us as close to catastrophe and the heart of human suffering as a writer can go. Mark leaves us there, insists that we look more closely at the details of the thing. Really he is trying to make us feel it, ever and anew. That seems to be what the yearly commemoration of Jesus's dying meant to Mark and his followers. And clearly, his Gospel is also a warning to anyone who confidently concludes that martyrdom is the surest path for the follower of Jesus to secure salvation. It was not easy for Jesus, Mark insists; it will be not any easier for you. All of Jesus's disciples failed him in the end, every one. Romanticizing death, whether Jesus' or his followers', is the most tragic mistake the Christian community can make, in Mark's judgment.

Good Friday Christianity was one important aspect of the early Christian movement, and it remains an important undercurrent in many more contemporary representations of Christian witness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke in these tragic tones when imprisoned by the Nazis; he wrote some remarkable letters in the Good Friday spirit before he was killed in prison. Dr. Martin Luthe King Jr. Preached a remarkable sermon in the spirit of Good Friday the night before he was assassinated. Cornel West, echoing his amanuensis, has made Good Friday Christianity, spiced with a liberal dose of his tragicomic blues sensibility, the very centerpiece of an activist, Afro-American Gospel. Such a liturgical sense of the Gospel's tragic heart is alive and well in the Greek church, these days more than most.

Good Friday is celebrated -- or rather, commemorated -- in somber ritual tones in churches the world over, for the western churches it takes place this week, and for the eastern churches on the next. Mark is its premier evangelist. On this Friday, if on any day, it is Mark's shattered and shattering Gospel that demands close Christian attention, before we move up and away from it to the joyous epiphany of Sunday morning. Good Friday Christianity puts the agony in the ecstasy, insisting that there is no other way.