Today is known as Holy Saturday. It stands between the cross and the resurrection. The cross is God’s ultimate identification with humanity, and the resurrection is the promise of the future. In the cross we find reconciliation, but in the resurrection we find victory. Today stands between those. This is where we live constantly. The battle has been fought and we are assured of a final, future victory, but it is not yet fully come. Today is a day to contemplate this in between period. We live in the in-between.
God in Christ so identified with us that, as the ancient creeds tell us “he descended into the realm of death.” This was not some fainting spell, this was not some temporary situation. This is not something to be explained away. When Jesus died, he truly died. Pilate did not take Joseph of Arimathea’s word for it, he conducted his own investigation. Jesus had really and truly died. So Joseph bought a linen cloth (Jesus’ own clothes having been gambled over by others), took the body down from the cross and placed him in a tomb. Watching over all of this again, were two Mary’s. They saw where he was laid, and they knew he was dead.
So today we sit in between. It doesn’t always seem like the final victory has been won. It feels like there is death around. The world is still not made right. We sit in between and must have faith for we know how the story ends/will end. But for now the story is not yet concluded, and we wait at the cusp of an as yet unfulfilled (yet somehow fully fulfilled) promise. Looking forward to the future, being affected by the past, sitting at the juxtaposition of the victory of the kingdom of this world and the greater victory of the Kingdom of God. This is where faith is made real and hope drives us forward. Sit and wait in the silence of the in between.
So much could be said. I hope today you will reflect on the cross of Christ.
I would perhaps recommend you reread today’s passage as a lectio divina, a divine reading. It’s a way of meditating and praying on the passage that comes from the early centuries of the church and survived throughout the middle ages until today. There is so much here, you could even take a few, or perhaps even just one verse and meditate on that.
To read the text in this way, read through it once again. As you do, stop and run over every word. Then pause and meditate on the meaning on the words. Think about the sounds they make, the way it feels in your mouth or in your head. If it helps, continue your meditation by trying to get an image in your head. Perhaps it is of you, perhaps of Christ. Lastly, pray your thoughts and the text back to God. Between each step, pause, breath, refocus yourself, and move on.
In the text there is so much. A stranger forced into the horrors of the day. Jesus’ refusal to give the sign people requested because the true God of love would not and could not come off the cross. The charge against him over his head. The sun being blotted out signalling that this was an end-of-the-world type event. The temple curtain torn in two, removing any and all barriers between us and God. The declaration of the centurion that this was the Son of God, and indication of both his divinity and his superiority over Caesar. Meditate on it. Reread it. Do it several times if you need to do so. Don’t rush past the crucifixion to get to the end.
Lastly, notice the women. There is no mention of any other follower, disciple, or other faithful member of Jesus’ group. Only the women. Surely that says something.
Holy God, thank you for your incarnation and death. We pray we not rush past it. We pray that we maintain our focus on you and your being. Amen.
Despite the predilection of some to place the blame for crucifixion upon the Jewish Leaders, the inescapable fact is that the Romans are the ones who crucified him. And so, the Jewish Leaders hand him over to Rome.
Pilate’s reluctance may have been a true desire not see someone he viewed as innocent be crucified. To declare Jesus deserved crucifixion is to affirm that Jesus not only sought to establish a new kingdom in opposition to Rome, but that there was sufficient cause to be alarmed that it had happened or might actually happen. In short, to execute Jesus for sedition (which was the actual charge) would be to affirm the words of Jesus: that he was the King of the Jews. Hence Jesus’ declaration to Pilate, when the charge was read, “you have said so.” This is Jesus pointing to the words on Pilate’s lips as evidence of his own identity.
The soldiers decide to take these same words and use them as a form of torture and mocking. In doing so, though, they unwittingly crowned him as King. A King who comes into a world of suffering and pain only to redeem that world.
The denial that Jesus predicted comes to pass. This is a sobering passage and a reminder of who we all are when it really comes down to it. We like to think we would never do such things. We like to imagine that it’d have been different if we had been there, regardless of the situation. But the reality is, we are all like Peter in that moment. This was, after all, the boldest, bravest and brashest of Jesus’ disciples. He was the one who later who preach to massive crowds and die heroically. But there, in the moment, Peter denies Christ. Not once, but three times. There’s Peter, running from a servant girl, running from his identity as a Galilean. There’s Peter cursing himself.
I think there’s something in that. Peter curses himself, but does God? God was too busy preparing to be the curse for us. We are all Peter not only in the cursing, in the denial, but in the fact that God in Christ remains faithful to us. Blessed be the name of the Lord who will remain faithful for it is who he is.
Today I just want to highlight two contrasts in this scene. In the first, Jesus is betrayed with a kiss. The greeting reserved for those who know each other closely and deeply, the type of greeting between long friends, this is the tool of betrayal. Much has been made about the kiss and I doubt my words will add much. Suffice to say this was a deep betrayal. Jesus became familiar with betrayal of the deepest sort.
vv. 51-52 are a bit of a curiosity in the Gospel. Only the Gospel of Mark records anything like it, which has led many to presume that this is the author. Nothing anywhere else really seems to support such evidence, so that is conjecture at best. This could be a sermon that Peter (if he is the source behind the text) gave, and just never really pulled back around. It could also have some deeper symbolic meaning known to the early church, such as the need to be free from worldly goods, or a covert reference to resurrection of the dead (the linen) in the last days (under persecution), that has since been lost to history. At any rate, caution should be exercised here and no reading seen as definitive.
Instead, the second contrast I want to look at. While Jesus is being judged by the Sanhedrin, he declares to them that HE will be judging them. That is what lies behind Jesus’ reference about the “Son of Man…coming on the clouds”. In the midst of judgment, Jesus declares himself to be the rightful judge. This sort of inversion is exactly the sort of thing God does when he establishes new covenants. Abraham, the childless old man, is told he will father a nation. Jacob, who seems to have won power over God/the angel of God, has his victory stolen by trickery of words and a dirty wrestling trick to become Israel. Moses, the man who declares himself to be incapable of speaking well is given the very words of God to declare to all people. David, the smallest of his brothers, is the one made king. God loves the inversion. So God inverts the scene again. It is not the Sanhedrin that judges Jesus, but Jesus who sits in judgment of them.
Thank God that Jesus is our judge, for he is also our defense attorney. If only we will step aside and let him take control. If Jesus is King, as HE who sits on God’s right hand, then I must abdicate any claim to rule, so that He may judge me as a friend.
It is perhaps somewhat telling that, at least according to tradition and a few ancient sources, John Mark, the so name author of the Gospel of Mark (though there is no named author for any of the Gospels within the text, nor throughout the New Testament), wrote his Gospel from listening to, and working with, Simon Peter. Peter, in particular, does not come across well here. Perhaps Peter had learned to make himself low in order to bring Christ high.
Specifically we have two incidents. The first, Peter brashly tells Jesus he will never deny him, and Jesus predicts that not only will Peter deny him, but that he will do so three times. Thanks be to God, though, that being a disciple, being welcomed by God, is more dependent upon who Christ is than who I am.
The second incident involves Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Jesus calls out Peter, James and John specifically and asks them to “keep watch.” While Jesus pours out his prayers to God, he returns only to find them asleep. The sleep of Peter is highlighted. It happens twice more. Jesus is both frustrated and also understanding (the spirit wants to, but the flesh keeps giving in). Personally, I can relate to Peter and the others here. How many times do we have a “go, go, go” mentality in our world today? How many times do we lose out to sleep? I cannot tell you how often I would plan to get up to study the bible and either stay asleep, or fall asleep while reading. Again, I am thankful that my physical failing (i.e. falling asleep), is not a condition of my salvation. This is not to say that a willing spirit is all that is required. The actions and words of Jesus clearly indicate that a willing spirit must be paired with real physical action. Perhaps if I learned to rest more in God when I need to, I would have the strength to stay awake when it is more difficult. I don’t have a simple answer to it all, only to note that this struggle is a common one.
Much of what occurs in this passage follows the traditional Jewish Passover meal of the time. Due to a quirk of history (providence), there were two traditions of Passover at the time Jesus came into Jerusalem. One would have celebrated Passover on Thursday, the other on Friday. So Jesus is able to both celebrate the Passover Seder on Thursday and be offered as the sacrificial lamb on Friday. Toward the end, however, Jesus deviates from the Passover traditions.
First is the bread he takes and gives to the disciples. Likely this was the afikomen or that which is saved (or that to be eaten later). Depending on tradition this was either reserved for Elijah or simply meant to symbolically be saved for next year. It is possible that his taking of that bread would have been indicating his declaration that Elijah has come, that is the new Kingdom, the one that wouldn’t end, was present.
Next he takes the cup of wine. The blood of the covenant, poured out for many, is clearly the establishment of a new promise and commitment. It is somewhat debated what this language would have meant, and how closely it follows Jewish betrothal custom. Irrespective of that, Jesus’ declaration that he will not drink it again until he drinks it in his newly built home (the Kingdom of God), is a reference to this betrothal custom. At a betrothal, the bride and groom would drink a cup of wine, and then the groom would not drink again until the wedding ceremony (whether symbolic or literal is up for debate, the message remains). This is at the heart of the communion.
Jesus asks us to enter into a new covenant, a marriage covenant. The Church accepts her role as bride, and every time she drinks the cup, she declares again to the world that she is spoke for, she is wanted, and she is faithful to another. As the brides awaited patiently for the bridegroom in the middle of the night, so too do we await our groom coming for us.
Jesus is anointed at the house of Simon the Leper. This is a familiar passage, but there are three things I’d like to highlight in it.
The alabaster jar/box carries deep significance related to a woman’s wedding. As part of the dowry, or possible just before the ceremony itself, the woman would receive an alabaster jar filled with perfume. These are fairly tiny jars and meant for a single use. They represent all of the hopes and expectation a new bride would have going into a marriage. We never get her full story, though another Gospel writer indicates she had a bad reputation, by which we should probably understand this to be sexual in nature. Whatever the case, her marriage, likely either right before or shortly after it began, fell apart. That or her family had long placed expectations of marriage upon her and she was unable to fulfill those. All those hopes and dreams were gone. Whatever the case, she no longer had those future hopes. Then she hears that Jesus comes, and she anoints him with oil. All those dreams and expectations were now placed on Jesus.
Those who are not Jesus feign an interest in the poor. This continues even today. Jesus’ reference that “you will always have the poor” is not meant to be taken as an excuse to avoid helping poor people today. It is not an argument against social programs (though I have seen many use it that way). Quite the opposite. It’s a reference to Deuteronomy 15:11. Jesus is indicting those who pretend to care for the poor. He is critiquing those who would pass the responsibility to maintain an “open hand” to others. The chief priests who hear of Judas’s desire to betray Jesus are delighted, offering money to him. Quite the contrast.
Jesus takes the whole scene and incorporates it into his passion narrative. She is preparing his body for burial. Jesus knows that he will soon die and this person, poor and needy as she was, plays an integral role in that preparation. It is only through his burial that he can come back to life. The only way to defeat death was to pass through death, and so Jesus is helped by this woman as he is prepared for this fate.
The last time I wrote or spoke about this passage, my words were largely misunderstood. That being the case, though, I do not think that I should somehow avoid talking about such a passage. With that in mind, I’m going to dive right into it, just note that I would ask you read this charitably, dear reader.
The first thing we need to do as readers is understand the eschatological context into which Jesus is speaking. Eschatology is anything that references the end of the world or “the day” of judgment. Jesus walks out of the temple and immediately begins talking about the end of the world. The entire chapter is a discussion of what the end of the world looks like and how to see it.
The second thing we need to understand as readers is that the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached was an eschatological Kingdom. That is, it was a kingdom that would only truly come about at the end of the world. Yet, throughout the gospels, Jesus speaks of it both coming (future) and already here (present). This is one of the hardest of the foundational concepts in Christian theology to grasp, but it is key to understanding much of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom. The Kingdom is both here and still coming. It is both inaugurated in Jesus and yet coming to fulfillment at the end of history.
The third thing we need to examine is how the Gospel writers, indeed the early church as a whole, understood Jesus’ death and resurrection. They understood it in many different ways, and with many different impacts, to be sure, but one thing I want to highlight is that they understood the death and resurrection of Jesus to be an eschatological event. Indeed this is behind much of the early church’s expectation (as you can read in various letters) that Jesus would return soon and the end of the world would come with it. It was only after some years, when the world did not end, that many of the authors had to reexamine their beliefs (and this may have resulted in 2 Thessalonians and the Revelation of John. There are a few key characteristics, beyond Jesus’ words, that would lead them to come to that conclusion. The first was that the sky would be darkened at the end of the world (and this happened, as recorded in other gospel writers); even Jesus makes mention of this belief. The second was that there would be earthquakes, which happened at the resurrection as well. Jesus does warn, however, that these two things by themselves are not a direct sign of the end of the world (but rather, birth pains).
The big piece, however, and the one convincing aspect, was that the dead would be raised to a new life at the end of the world. In Matthew’s account, the moment Jesus died, not only did the temple curtain split, signaling a new era, not only was there an earthquake, but lots of other people came out of their tombs. Matthew mentions, and then has absolutely no follow up on these other people, prompting us to wonder. But, if the death and resurrection of Jesus was an end-of-history event, then surely this would be expected. Yet history continued on.
The broader understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus became that this event was like a lightening bolt in history. It was like the end-of-history broke through in a quick glimpse at the resurrection of Jesus, but offered only a glimpse. The raising to life of others were like the riplings of thunder as God temporarily splint space-time asunder to call forth his Son. This is why we can have ultimate confidence. We’ve caught a glimpse of the end. God showed us the last page. And on that page we see Jesus standing triumphant over death. We need not fear death too much, for it is only temporary, and Christ has already defeated it. This is is all part of the background.
The last thing we need to examine is what is meant by the “abomination unto desolation.” It’s an odd phrase. To be sure, many contemporary “end times” preachers have sought to give a wide variety of interpretations of what this is. What is consistently missing from most of these accounts, though, is a recognition that Jesus did not speak into a vacuum. That phrase “abomination unto desolation” already had a specific reference in the Jewish mindset before Jesus ever spoke it. It was mentioned first in the book of Daniel as a clear reference to the desecration of a holy place (i.e. the corruption of the temple by some specific act).
In the book of Maccabees, part of the “apocrypha” or “deuterocanon,” it describes (in part) an historical episode in the life of the Jewish people. The history, in broad swaths, is that, following the return to Jerusalem under Cyrus and the Persians, Persia was taken over by Alexander the Great (and with it, all of that territory). Once Alexander died, the territory was split up between his four generals. Two of them, or rather the mini-nations that resulted from this split, Ptolemy and Seleucus, fought over the area containing Jerusalem due to its strategic military and economic position. The Seleucids eventually won control and Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned ritual sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Instead, he went into the temple and offered a pig as a sacrifice to his pagan gods. That act was the “abomination unto desolation” and it set off the Maccabbean revolt (that resulted in relative independence until the Roman general Pompey came on the scene). From then on, throughout the early centuries for Jewish thinkers and authors, “abomination unto desolation” referred to that specific act.
With all of that background, we should now revisit the words of Jesus. Jesus declares that when you (e.g. the audience there that day) see the “abomination unto desolation standing where it does not belong” (e.g. you see the horrific atrocity of a pagan group through their sacrifice) you will know that the end of the world has come. Jesus is referencing, in other words, himself. His own sacrifice will be seen as such an abomination.
The Romans were known for being a blood thirsty people. They loved the torture of others and used execution like crucifixion as a tool to demonstrate their superiority as the Empire. Caesar was in charge, and all who dare to argue for another ruler or another Kingdom would be executed in brutal fashion. While Jewish leaders may have played a role, ultimately the execution of Jesus was carried out by the Romans. He was executed for one charge and one charge only: sedition. This is the abomination. Later, Paul reminds the early church that “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree“. The Romans took the Holy One of God and crucified him, thus securing his fate as cursed.
Yet God took that instance and, in that moment, it was Christ taking on our curse. And as Christ, dying with our sin and curse, was on the cross, so our own curse under sin and the law was killed with him. When Christ was raised, following the abomination, the curse stayed dead. So Christ’s words here are not a guidebook to the end of the world, but a way for us to read his own death and resurrection. What Caesar intended to use for the destruction and desolation of Israel, God used to redeem the world. As when Antiochus was subject to a revolt for his actions, so too would the death of Christ inaugurate a new Kingdom in opposition to the Kingdoms of this world. Unlike the previous one, this would be a Kingdom without end and would include all nations. If any die with him, we will also live with him.
*Note: when I originally spoke about this, and wrote about it, I was unaware of any other interpreter who had reached a similar conclusion. I have since come to be aware of at least two New Testament scholars, Professor David P Scaer and Professor Peter Bolt, have reached the same conclusion. My work was done independent of theirs, and, as far as I can tell, their work was independent and unaware of each others. So while I did not rely upon either, it is nevertheless encouraging to note that there have been numerous, more learned scholars than myself, who have reached the same conclusion.
**Extra note: this should not be misinterpreted in any way (as was, unfortunately done to me previously) to mean that Jesus is the anti-Christ. That is a ridiculous statement. Of course the Christ cannot be the anti-Christ. Discussions of the anti-Christ deserve their own separate post, but, suffice it say, anyone who acts against the cause of Christ assumes the role of anti-Christ.
In today’s passage a contrast is set up between the teachers of the law and a widow.
The teacher’s of the law act like they have an absolute knowledge. They believe they have a corner on the market, yet Jesus begins (in today’s reading) with demonstrating how little they actually know. Not only does he use this passage to demonstrate how the teacher’s of the law had incorrectly pointed to the identity of the Messiah, believing that he would come as a secular King in what they recognized as the line of David inaugurating a second age of the Maccabees (the Jewish revolt between the rule of the Greeks and the rule of the Romans), but Jesus chooses one of the most difficult to understand of the psalms to make his point. By revealing their own ignorance, he demonstrates that those who would use their intellect to Lord it over people know nothing still when compared to the LORD.
Jesus also notes the hypocrisy inherit in this group. They demand to be treated with honor, they wear clothing that indicates they are somehow holier than all others. They give lengthy prayers, and make sure others see them. Yet they think nothing of taking the life, property and being from the poor and vulnerable of society.
Speaking of the poor and vulnerable, a widow, much like the one Jesus was previously referencing, comes into the temple. Jesus commends her as the one who gave the most because she gives “out of her poverty.” People commend large donors. They like those who give millions or billions of dollars. A lot of respect has been given, for instance, to Bill Gates who has pledged to give away most of his wealth. To be sure, his gifts may be generous, but at the end of the day, he will still live his life as a billionaire up until his death, even if he gives away 99%+ of his wealth. This is not to say his acts are terrible. Instead, it is to note that the one who gives when it hurts, who gives time they do not have, or funds when they have very little, the one who recognizes her/his situation as one of blessing and so wishes to bless others, even in the midst of poverty, this is the one who should be commended. A million acts of charity and love and sacrifice, greater than the monetary gifts of a billionaire, exist all around us every day. Jesus calls us to stop and try to take notice.