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A Reflection on the Death of Jesus

by on April 10, 2020

If New Testament scholars are correct Mark was the first of the four gospels written about Jesus. They cite is that Mark is the shortest of the gospels, suggesting that stories of Jesus developed the longer they circulated. By the time of Matthew, Luke, and John more chapters were required.

On this Good Friday, like many of you, I read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, and the observation of the scholars holds true. Mark’s account is brief, Luke and John, toggling third and fourth place, include the most details. Seeing this anew started me thinking about the value of Mark’s laconic style.

We live in the “information age.” There used to be three major news sources which shared the same hour—5:00 PM. Then came cable news network providing twenty-four hour news coverage. There was one or maybe two morning news sources—the daily paper. Now we have the internet “pushing” news upon us from innumerable sources every minute of the day. We are saturated with information.

I generally approach life from the perspective that more information is better than less. This is why I take so long to make decisions. I love gathering information, researching options, making comparisons, considering context, foreseeing potential consequences, weighing those . . . You get it. The problem is, now I have so much information it is nearly impossible for me to feel confident about a decision—even one that has taken a long time to make.

Matthew, Luke, and John each make unique contributions to the story about Jesus’ death. The distinctive theologies of their communities flavor the Passion accounts in ways that have become precious to Jesus’ devotees. Imagine the crucifixion scene apart from Luke’s telling of the two bandits also crucified. We are supposed to identify with one or the other—the one who joins the crowds in deriding Jesus or the one who acknowledges his guilt and desires God’s Kingdom.

While I also love the particular contributions of the later gospels, Mark economical account has surprised me this year. Every day we update statistics about COVID-19. We receive new predictions, additional warnings, and greater restrictions. Information, much of it not helpful or new at all, surges towards us like a tsunami. It’s easy to get so caught up in the information that we forget the other messages accompanying the pandemic.

Those other messages include the value of human touch and social interactions we had taken for granted. They include praying for “essential” workers we never thought of before—like grocery store stockers and garbage collectors. They include recognizing that not everything we thought was so important is really that important after all.

And Mark, in his direct description of the death of Jesus, does not tempt us to linger too long over details that may become sentimental or divert us into speculative interpretation. He gives us the record in light of the tradition. My sense is he wants us to arrive at his even more brief account of the Resurrection. This account was so brief the first recipients of Mark’s gospel created longer endings!

But Mark has been trying to get us to the end of the story the whole gospel through. Jesus is “immediately” doing this then “immediately” doing that. There are no angels or shepherds or Magi. Mark has fewer and much shorter discourses from Jesus. He’s all about getting to the Resurrection, at the conclusion of which he nudges his audience to go back “to Galilee” where it all began—to start reading Mark again (Mark 16:7; see 1:1).

It’s Good Friday and the church calendar rightly has us pause to reflect upon the death of Jesus. His original disciples had to endure the time of his crucifixion without the hope of resurrection; certainly it is appropriate for us to reflect upon his death. And we have grief just as they did, though for different reasons. Yes we know the hope of resurrection, but we have lost so much in the past several weeks. It’s important to honor grief, which I believe is one of the messages of Christ’s death: God knows our grief.

That said, let us also recognize that in order for new life to come death is necessary. The seed has to be planted and die, Jesus taught us, so that it might be transformed into its abundant and generous life. So with Jesus. So with our world. And so with us. As we reflect upon death, let us do so realistically, as Mark does. It really is a very small part of life. And thanks be to God in Christ, “what is mortal is swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:4)

A blessed Good Friday to you,

Tom

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