Holy Week Meditations

Holy Week Meditation based on Mark's Gospel and Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg's book The Last Week. (The extracts below should be read after the appropriate Gospel passages.) Compiled by Jack Parkes.

Palm Sunday: Mark 11.1-11

The Processions

Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover. One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives. His message was about the Kingdom of God and his followers came from the peasant class. On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate the Roman governor entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Pilate's procession proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus' Crucifixion.

Pilate's military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology. It was standard practice for Roman governors to be present in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival: not out of religious sensitivity but to be in the city in case there was trouble. There often was at Passover, a festival that celebrated the Jewish people's liberation from an earlier empire.

According to Roman imperial theology the Emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. For Rome's Jewish subjects, Pilate's procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.

Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus's procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God. The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus life.

Mark makes it starkly clear that the ruling Jewish elite worked via the tacit approval of the Roman authorities, the domination system, and were therefore collaborators. The local people were oppressed not just by the Romans and their taxes but by the puppet authorities - which included the Temple Authorities whose primary obligation to Rome was loyalty - and their taxes. The High Priest, Caiaphas must have been particularly skilful as he lasted in office for nearly twenty years.

This was the Jerusalem Jesus entered on Palm Sunday. His message was deeply critical of the temple and the role it had come to play in the domination system of empire and Jesus pronounces forgiveness apart from temple sacrifice. Jesus' message and activity put him in conflict with the temple authorities from the moment he arrived in Jerusalem.

As we consider Palm Sunday we need to be clear that the conflict which led to Jesus' crucifixion was not Jesus against Judaism. Jesus was part of Judaism not apart from it. His protest is about a domination system legitimated by God. Jesus' is a Jewish voice arguing about what loyalty to the God of Judaism meant.

Two processions entered Jerusalem that day. Which procession are we in? Which do we yearn to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold.

 

The Monday of Holy Week: Mark 11.12-26

Jesus in the Temple and the odd business with the Fig Tree

 

Mark begins this Monday with a hungry Jesus looking for fruit on a fig tree, which he then curses for not being in fruit. We are next taken into the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus effectively closes the place down through his driving out of commercial activity before we return to the fig tree which has withered away to its root.

It is a mistake to see these as separate incidents: Mark's Gospel often contains pairs of incidents that are intended to be interpreted in the light of one another. Mark emphasises two seemingly contradictory elements in his account of the cursing of the fig tree: on the one hand it was Passover week which would have been late March or early April when the fig tree would not have been in fruit. It was not the season for figs. On the other hand Jesus was hungry and having failed to find fruit, cursed the tree to permanent barrenness. This is Mark's way of warning us to treat the event symbolically rather than literally.

If we take the incident literally we see a petulant Jesus abusing his divine power, but taken as a parable the fig tree's failure is a cypher for the temple. The framing fig tree warns us that the temple isn't being cleansed but symbolically destroyed and that, in both cases, the problem is a lack of fruit.

There are some Christians who assume Jesus was objecting to blood sacrifice although this is unlikely. From antiquity human beings knew two basic ways of creating and maintaining relationships with one another - the gift and the meal. How then did they create, maintain or restore good relationships with a divine being? What visible acts could they do to reach an invisible being? Again, they could give a gift or share a meal. In sacrifice as a gift the offeror took a valuable animal or other food and gave it to God by burning it on the altar and the smoke and smell rising upwards symbolized the transition of the gift from earth to heaven.

In sacrifice as a meal the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and the meat was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a sacred feast with God.

Neither is about suffering or substitution.

There may have been an issue with the ambiguity of the temple as both the House of God on earth and the institutional seat of submission to Rome. The temple's ambiguity was, however, far more ancient than any problem with Caiaphas's collusion with Pilate in particular or High Priestly collaboration with Rome in General: it goes back at least a further half a millennium to the time of the Prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 7 God tells Jeremiah to stand in front of the temple and confront those who enter to worship. Confront them about what? About their false sense of security. They seem to take it for granted that God's presence in the temple guarantees the security of Jerusalem and their own security too. “Do you think”, charges God through Jeremiah, “that divine worship excuses you from divine justice and that all God wants is regular attendance at God's temple rather than an equitable distribution of God's justice? Has this house which is called by my name become a den of robbers in your sight?” The people's everyday injustice makes them robbers and they think the temple is their safe house. The temple is not the place where robbery occurs but the place the robbers go for refuge. God does not just insist on justice and worship, but on justice over worship. “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies......But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The temple incident involved both an action by Jesus and a teaching that accompanied and explained it. First the action: Jesus began to drive out the buyers and sellers, he overturned the tables of the money changers, he overturned the seats of the dove sellers and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

All of these activities were perfectly legitimate and absolutely necessary for the temple's normal functioning. What does it mean then that Jesus stopped the temple's perfectly legitimate sacrificial and fiscal activities? It means that Jesus has shut down the temple but in a symbolic rather than a literal shutdown.

At this point the Marcan frames of fig tree and temple coalesce. The tree was shut down for the lack of fruit Jesus looked for - and so also was the temple. In the case of the temple it is not cleansing but symbolic destruction, and the fig tree's fate emphasises that meaning.

Sadly in much modern Christian thought, "den" is ignored and "robbery" taken to mean the commerce going on in the outer courts of the temple. This is a symbolic fulfilment of God's threat in Jeremiah. There was nothing wrong with the combination of prayer, worship and sacrifice - they are commanded in the Torah. This is not the problem. God is a God of justice and righteousness and when prayer, worship and sacrifice substitute for justice, God rejects his temple - or, for us today, his church.

 

Tuesday: Mark 12.13-17

Jesus and the Coin

All day long on this very busy Tuesday Jesus is engaged in confrontation. The priests, Pharisees, and Scribes and even the Sadducees have been bombarding Jesus with theological questions in both hypothetical situations and very real, politically charged situations. All day long Jesus has been confounding them, telling parables that point out their failings and cleverly evading their attempts to discredit him. And somewhere in the middle of the day a scribe, an educated man employed by the priests or Pharisees, asks a question and agrees with Jesus’ answer. There is no confrontation, no test, no effort to make Jesus look bad or to incriminate himself. This is the only such situation all day.

Jesus is challenged in the temple court before the crowd over paying taxes to Caesar. There is a fawning approach to Jesus “Teacher, we know you are sincere and show deference to no one.” This passage has reasonably been understood as a comment on the importance of keeping an appropriate relationship and distance between religious and civil authorities: we are to render to God and we are to render to Caesar. Some have argued that Jesus' response is a tacit acceptance that we are to be obedient to the state whatever it requires of us, but to see the passage this narrowly misses the wider context of attack, parry and counter attack, trap, escape and counter trap.

Should we pay taxes to Caesar was a volatile question that went to the heart of Israel's status as a subservient nation. Either answer would get Jesus into trouble: if he were to answer no, he could be charged with denying Roman authority - in short with sedition. If he were to answer yes, he risked discrediting himself with the crowd who resented Roman rule and taxation. Perhaps the plan was to separate Jesus from the crowd and undermine his support.

His response is clever and turns the situation back on his questioners: he sets a counter trap when he asks for a denarius which his interrogators produce. “Whose head is this? And whose title?” This strategy has led his questioners to disclose to the crowd that they have a coin with Caesar's image on it and in this moment they are discredited. Why? In Israel in the first century there were two types of coin: one type, because of the Jewish prohibition of graven images, had no human or animal images. The second type, including Roman coins, did and many Jews would not carry the second type in obedience to Jewish law. But these Pharisees did. The coin they produced had Caesar's image along with the idolatrous inscription heralding Caesar as divine son of God. They are exposed as part of the politics of collaboration and the crowd sees it. Their trap has been evaded and the counter trap sprung.

His response “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors” is a non-answer to their original question. It simply means “It's Caesar's coin - give it back to him.” This is not an endorsement of paying taxes to the occupying force. The second part of his response, though, is both evocative and provocative: Give to God the things that are God's. It raises the question "What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?" Everything belongs to God and by implication, nothing belongs to Caesar.

 

Wednesday: Mark 14.1-9

The scent of perfume and the smell of betrayal

 

Once again Mark uses a frame for the main story. The frame is the need for a betrayer and Judas' adoption of that role set around the main incident of the woman and the jar of perfume.

The religious authorities want Jesus executed but are deterred from overt action because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. Following his prophetic and symbolic actions in first, his entrance into Jerusalem to establish God's non-violence against imperial domination and second, his entrance into the temple to establish God's justice against high-priestly collaboration, the crowd currently stands with Jesus against their own religious authorities who oppose him.

The religious authorities need to act in stealth to kill him for they said “Not during the Passover, or there may be a riot among the people.” They cannot arrest him during the festival and after it he would be gone. They give up - unless they can find out where he is apart from the crowd and that leaves 14.2 hanging in the air for the arrival of Judas, the stealthy one, in v10.

One of the things about Mark's Gospel is Mark's relentless criticisms of the disciples for being dense: all too often they simply don't get it. Mark's story of failed discipleship is his gift to us today. We must think of Lent as a penitential period because we know that, like the first disciples, we would like to avoid the implication of the journey with Jesus. We would like its Holy Week conclusion to be about the interior rather than the exterior life, about heaven rather than about earth, about the future rather than the present and above all, about religion safely and securely quarantined from all wider manifestations of politics. Confronting violent political power and unjust religious collaboration is dangerous in all times and places. Just look today at how the African churches are treating LGBT Christians as a simple contemporary example.

Mark's criticism of the disciples is used to good effect as it is now set against the actions of the unnamed woman and her alabaster jar of perfume. She alone seems to have understood Jesus' prophecies of his death and resurrection, has believed them and acted accordingly: “She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” She is, for Mark, the first believer and for us the first Christian. She believed the word of Jesus before any discovery of an empty tomb. Hence the unique and supreme praise for her as the first believer and model leader. She represents the perfect disciple-leader and is in contrast to Judas, who represents the worst one possible.

It is worth noting that Mark does not deal at all with Judas' motivation and he is always referred to as Judas, one of the twelve. His betrayal is simply the worst example of how those closest to him failed him dismally in Jerusalem. That is a salutary thought for all disciples today.

And so Wednesday ends and the plot has been set in motion.

 

Maundy Thursday: Mark 14.10-72

A secret meal, prayer, betrayal and arrest

 

Mark's story of Jesus' last week moves towards its climax. On Wednesday Jesus had been anointed for burial by a woman disciple and betrayed to the authorities by one of the twelve men closest to him. On Thursday, the events set in motion by Wednesday unfold.

Holy Thursday is full of drama. In the evening Jesus eats a final meal with his followers and prays for deliverance in Gethsemane; he is betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter and deserted by the rest. Arrested in the darkness he is interrogated and condemned to death by the High Priest and his council, the local collaborators with imperial authority. All of this happens before dawn on Friday.

Details of this passage recall the preparations for Jesus' entry into the city on Palm Sunday. In both cases Jesus sends two of his disciples, tells them what to look for and instructs them what to say. In this case the preplanning has to do with secrecy: Mark has Jesus withhold from Judas the precise location of the meal so that Judas cannot tell the authorities where Jesus is during this meal. This meal matters and Judas must not be allowed to interfere with its completion.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus knows what will happen. How could he not? He must have known that the noose was tightening, that the cross was approaching. He was not oblivious to the hostility of the authorities and no doubt saw his arrest and execution as inevitable.

With the arrival of evening Jesus and the disciples come to the upstairs room where the arrangements have been made. This final meal has multiple resonances of meaning: it projects backwards to the public activity of Jesus and forward into his death and the post Easter life of Christianity. Jesus' Last Supper will be the First Supper of the future.

We need to remember that Jesus had been repeatedly criticised for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The issue is that Jesus eats with undesirables: with the marginalised and outcast in a society which had sharp social boundaries. It had both religious and political significance: religious because it was done in the name of the Kingdom of God and political because it affirmed a very different vision of society.

As Mark narrates what Jesus did at the meal, he uses four verbs: took, blessed, broke and gave. These four words take us back to an earlier scene concerning food in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with two loaves and three fish. Mark's emphasis on a just distribution of what does not belong to us links that event to the emphasis on the loaf of bread and the cup of wine that are shared amongst all in the New Passover meal. Once again Jesus distributes food already present to all who are there and we might even assume a wider group of followers than the inner twelve.

As a Passover meal, Jesus' Last Supper resonates with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, his people's story of their birth as a nation. A story of bondage, deliverance and liberation, it was their primordial narrative, the most important story they knew because it was, and remains, the celebration of God's greatest act of deliverance.

Mark's version of the Last Supper leaves the connection to Passover implicit. What makes it explicit is the connection to Jesus' impending death and it does so with the "words of institution", familiar to us through their use in the Eucharist. The language of body and blood points to a violent death and without that it would not have been possible to talk of Jesus' death as a blood sacrifice. A correlation between Jesus as the new Paschal Lamb and this final meal as the New Passover becomes possible. The point is neither suffering nor substitution but participation with God through gift or meal.

Earlier in Mark (10.45) Jesus had said “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That liberation, redemption or salvation is echoed here in Jesus' statement "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." What is not immediately clear is how that is accomplished for many until we recall the challenge (8.34-35) “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.” In other words it was by participation with Jesus and, even more, in Jesus that his followers were to pass through death to resurrection. It is to be noted then that all of the twelve, including Judas partake of the meal: participation in Christ, not substitution by Christ.

Turning to Jesus' arrest: again we have the theme of failed discipleship as the disciples, seemingly untouched by Jesus' agitation and distress, are unable to support him through that night. Of course Jesus does not want to go through with it. Who would? Yet he gives himself over to God - "Not what I want but what you want."

I think we need to be clear that Jesus' death was not the will of God: it is never God's will that the righteous suffer. The prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but a trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances as a forerunner to Peter, Paul, Thecla and all who have died as martyrs since.

Judas now knows the plans for the rest of the evening. He has already left the meal and now Jesus can be arrested in the darkness away from the crowd. He leads the crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders, the limited paramilitary force allowed to the temple authorities by the Romans. This is not the group Jesus has spent the week in conflict with, merely their enforcers so Judas has to identify Jesus for them to be able to effect an arrest. Why would they know which one Jesus is? He does this with a kiss of greeting and betrayal. There is a scuffle and one of Jesus' followers uses a sword against the temple police. Is this another example of the failure of the disciples in Mark's eyes? In any event Jesus isn't standing for it in his name. "Put your sword back; for all who take the sword will perish by it." In the general melee the disciples flee the scene anxious not to share their leader's fate, not to be heard of again until after Easter with the exception of Peter who at least follows the arresting group, presumably at some distance. We hear of Peter next after the trial in his famous denial "I do not know this man you are talking about!" We shouldn't be too hard on Peter. In our own ways and with our own words and actions or, indeed, in our silences, we too have denied Jesus or played down our association out of expedience. But we jump ahead of ourselves.

Neither do we hear of Judas again: it is left to the other gospels to explain that Judas has an attack of conscience and tries to return the blood money the religious authorities had paid him to betray Jesus. It is left to Matthew to introduce Judas' suicide.

So we reach the trial. We need to remember that according to Mark there were no overt followers of Jesus there. Is the account of the trial a Markan construct or can we surmise a sympathiser at the trial who later reported back? We also need to remember that the Sanhedrin, made up of collaborators as it was, didn't represent the view of the people who so far had been on Jesus' side.

It is not a good start to the trial from the perspective of the authorities: the witnesses lie and disagree amongst themselves. It says something about the Sanhedrin's "commitment to justice" that the trial went ahead from this point. However, in the absence of the three adult male witnesses who needed to agree for a charge to progress, the High Priest goes for a direct confession and challenges Jesus one to one. In response to the question “Are you the Messiah, the son of the blessed one?” Jesus responds, we are told, quoting Daniel with "I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power." On this basis Jesus is found guilty and the High Priest tears his robe as a sign that blasphemy has taken place. Jesus is condemned to death and the emotional and physical abuse begins. He will now be handed over to Pilate. It is not yet daybreak. The end - and the beginning - are near.

 

Good Friday: Mark 15.1-47

A day of pain and suffering

 

We refer to today as Good Friday out of sheer habit and familiarity. There was nothing "good" about it in one sense, but in another today was the day, as Christians have affirmed for centuries, when, despite its horror, the redemption of the world was accomplished. Many of us have a pre-understanding about today based on a cultural exposure to Christianity, arising out of centuries of Christian observance and of theological reflection about the death of Jesus, although that is less and less the case with each passing generation.

The best known understanding of Jesus' death emphasizes its substitutionary sacrificial nature: he died for the sins of the world because we are all sinners. In order for God to forgive sins, such a sacrifice must be made but it would not have been adequate for any ordinary human being to have been the sacrifice, because such a person, as a sinner, could only be dying for their own sins. Therefore the sacrifice must not be a sinner, but a perfect human being. Only Jesus, who was not only human but the Son of God, was perfect, sinless and without blemish. Thus he is the sacrifice acceptable to God and the sacrifice which makes our forgiveness possible.

For most of us this understanding is part of the landscape of our religious upbringing and is reinforced by our hymns and liturgies which commonly use the language of substitutionary sacrifice. It has become the official line and is defended by the church, including many who hold a degree of scepticism towards it.

We need, therefore to recognise that this is not the only Christian understanding of Jesus' death and that it took more than a thousand years for it to become dominant, appearing in its current form for the first time in a book by Anselm of Canterbury in 1097. This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says, even given its use of sacrificial language: the N.T. writers also see Jesus' execution as the domination system's "no" to Jesus (and God), as a defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation, and a disclosure of the depth of God's love for us.

As we approach today, then, we might need to aware of how our theological preconceptions can get in the way of what Mark is saying. Perhaps it would help us to recognise that we often see Jesus' death as a composite of the gospels as we do with Christmas, getting our inns, angels, shepherds and wise men all mixed up. Each narrative differs in some respects: only Matthew has Pilate washing his hands of Jesus and the cry of the crowd “His blood be upon us and our children.” Only Luke has Jesus appearing before Herod Antipas as well as three of the "last" words of Jesus. In John's gospel we have much more dialogue between Jesus and Pilate and John also adds more "last" words as Jesus addresses his mother and John. In addition our composite understanding is informed by the language of St. Paul (whose letters predate the gospels) and the author of the letter to the Hebrews where Jesus is the Great High Priest who offers himself as a sacrifice. Paul's letters are not narratives, though, and thus do not include a story of Good Friday. Indeed Paul's language contain a number of interpretations of the significance of Jesus' death.

In order to understand Mark we need to set aside all these filters.

Even so, although Mark's Gospel is the earliest, we must not imagine his story to be free of post-Easter interpretation because it combines retrospective interpretation with history remembered. However, there is no theology of substitutionary sacrifice in Mark's gospel: dying for the sins of the world is not there at all in Mark. Even when Jesus says in 10.45 that he came to give his life as a ransom for many the Greek word translated as sacrifice (lutron) is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin but to refer to payment made to liberate captives or slaves. A lutron is a means of liberation from bondage. So now we have The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a means of liberation for many. The difference may seem subtle, but it is there. Could this be semantics and the liberation is actually from sin? Of course that interpretation could be made, but it is not what Mark is saying.

Mark tells his story in bite-sized chunks of three hours to reflect the Roman military watches (or maybe his original audience had a limited concentration span.)

6am to 9am: As day breaks, the local collaborators - chief priests, elders and scribes - hand Jesus over to Pilate who interrogates him. “Are you the King of the Jews?” with some mocking emphasis on "you" no doubt. We might also hear a mocking tone in Jesus' response “You say so.” Jesus says nothing else which would surely have enraged a man like Pilate, unused to insubordination. Jesus shows courage in this strategy.

Pilate then offers to release Barabbas instead of Jesus. This seems an odd thing to do with its risk of releasing a known rebel. Perhaps we need to remember who the first audience was for Mark's Gospel in AD70. Both Barabbas and Jesus defied imperial authority: Barabbas advocated violent resistance and Jesus, non-violent resistance. By the year AD66 the Jerusalem crowd had chosen Barabbas' way and the Roman destruction of the temple would still have been fresh in the minds of Mark's audience. Mark uses this incident to underline a point.

Mark tells us the temple authorities stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. These were not the same crowds who had heard Jesus with supportive delight during the week: Mark gives us no reason to believe that this crowd had turned against Jesus, indeed it is highly unlikely that the earlier crowd, so supportive of Jesus would be allowed into Herod's palace. This crowd, stirred up by the chief priests, would have been likely to have been much smaller and was probably a version of rent-a-mob provided by the authorities. So when Pilate asks “Then what do you want me to do with the man you call King of the Jews, the crowd respond Crucify him.”

Jesus is handed over to Pilate's soldiers who, in time honoured fashion, torture and humiliate him. Then they conduct a mock coronation, dressing him in a purple robe, placing a crown of thorns on his head and hailing him King of the Jews. Then the humiliation continues as they strike him and spit on him, then they undress him again and lead him out to be crucified. Exhausted as he was, Jesus was unable to carry the bar of his cross to the place of execution and a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, was press-ganged to help.

9am to Noon: Mark doesn't bother with the details of the crucifixion. He didn't need to because his community were all too familiar with this process of imperial terrorism. This was a barbaric, agonising and drawn-out punishment, its public nature aimed to be a deterrent. What made it the supreme punishment was not just the amount of suffering or even humiliation involved but the idea that there might not even be enough left for burial: victims were often crucified low enough to the ground that not only carrion birds but scavenging dogs could reach them and they were often left on the cross until little was left of their bodies for burial.

On the cross an inscription was placed: The King of the Jews. Pilate surely intended it to be derisive although it has served to be accurate from the vantage point of Christianity. Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two bandits, not robbers or thieves. Bandits is a term commonly used for guerrillas or freedom-fighters so their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for those who systematically refused to accept imperial Roman authority. Ordinary criminals were not executed.

Noon to 3pm: Jesus has been on the cross for three hours and the next three hours are dealt with simply in the phrase “When it was noon, darkness came over the land until three in the afternoon.” As astronomers can tell us exactly when and where eclipses have taken place Mark cannot be referring to such darkness. We could argue for a particular intervention by God at this point but such a darkness would not have gone unremarked in contemporary writings and there is no such reference. Instead the darkness is a by-product of Mark's use of religious symbolism. In the ancient world, highly significant events on earth were accompanied by signs in the sky and such images appeared in Mark's own sacred text, the Jewish scriptures. What was Mark's intention? To convey grief? Suffering? Mourning? Judgement?

3pm to 6pm: At 3pm or shortly thereafter Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Mark has Jesus uttering a cry of desolation “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in a quotation from Ps 22. In another piece of symbolism Mark gives us the curtain of the temple, the curtain which separated the holiest place from the rest of the sanctuary, tearing in two - access to the presence of God is now open and Jesus has allowed access to God apart from the temple.

At the same time the centurion guarding the cross exclaims “Truly this man was the son of God.” This is most significant because according to Roman imperial theology the emperor was Son of God, one who brought salvation and peace on earth. Now, however, a representative of Rome affirms that this man Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God.

Where are Jesus' followers at this point? The men have fled leaving the faithful women who can only watch from behind the barriers. It is these and other women disciples who are the key players in the story from now on. They witness Jesus death; they follow the body and note where it is buried; they are the first to go to the tomb on the Sunday for completion of funeral rites and experience the news of Easter. Are they there merely because they would not arouse the suspicion of the authorities when the men would have, or is there another reason? Jewish and Gentile women of this period were subservient. Jesus and the early Christian movement subverted the conventions of the day. Sadly the church has denied this subversion but it is prominently here for all to see in this most significant of elements in the climactic events of Jesus' execution.

There is a remarkable departure from the standard practice as Joseph of Arimathea seeks and gains permission to take the body down and remove it for burial. Mark has Joseph as a respected member of the council who was also waiting for the Kingdom of God and we can perhaps surmise a sympathy for Jesus here. In the other gospels his status is changed to that of an active disciple. Whatever Joseph's history the stage is now set for Easter morning.

 

 Holy Saturday

 

After detailing every day from Palm Sunday through to Good Friday, Mark says nothing at all about the Sabbath then picks up the story on Easter Sunday with the finding of the empty tomb. What about the day we call Holy Saturday? Was there nothing to say about that day in earliest Christian tradition? If we, as Christians, have followed Mark's silence about today, have we lost something in the process?

We can see very clearly what Mark has omitted by looking at the Apostles Creed

Friday: Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried.

Saturday: He descended into hell.

Sunday: The third day he rose again from the dead.

The descent into hell is not to the later Christian place of eternal punishment, but the Jewish Sheol, the afterlife place of non-existence, the grave writ large. What is the meaning of that event?

As Mark set out to describe Jesus' execution he was working within Jewish tradition that had always emphasised how God vindicated those righteous Jews who remained faithful under persecution and were ready, if necessary, to die as martyrs for their faith in God. In the Apocryphal book of Wisdom we read “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster and their going from us to be destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.” (3.1-4) It is such theology which is behind the gospel stories of Jesus death and vindication. First Jesus is mocked by passers-by, by the authorities, and even by those crucified with him for the lack of pre-emptive divine intervention to save him from death on the cross.

Then we recall future vindication from several places in Mark's text. Apart from three prophecies of death by execution and vindication by resurrection in 8.31, 9.31 and 10.33-34, the promise of vindication is repeated in 13.26, “They will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”, and again in 14.62, “You will see the Son of Man at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” This is post-death public vindication which was in accordance with the scriptures for all who knew their tradition.

Scholars have debated whether that divine salvation refers to the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. If, as in Biblical tradition, your faith tells you that this world belongs to and is ruled by a just divinity and your experience tells you that that the world belongs to and is ruled by an unjust humanity, eschatology becomes almost inevitable as the reconciliation of faith and experience. God, you believe, will transform this world of violence and injustice into one of nonviolence and justice. God will act - indeed must act - to make new and holy a world grown old in evil.

Eschatology is absolutely not about the end of this world, but rather about the end of this world's subjection to evil and impurity, injustice, violence and oppression. It is not about the evacuation of earth for God's heaven, but about the divine transfiguration of God's earth.

How then did the claim of general bodily resurrection, surely the most counter intuitive idea imaginable, become part of that scenario of cosmic transfiguration? The general reason was because the renewal of an all-good creation here below upon this earth demanded it. How could you have a renewed creation without renewed bodies? That magnificent vision of a transformed flesh as well as a renewed spirit demanded transfigured bodies as well as perfect souls.

The specific reason for bodily resurrection was related to martyrdom, particularly in the 160s BC in the Seleucid persecutions. The question was not about their survival but about God's justice when faced specifically with the battered, tortured and executed bodies of martyrs. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”. (Daniel 12.2)

Those general and specific reasons had come together in apocalyptic eschatology and Pharisaic theology at the time of Jesus. When God's great cleansing happened the first order of business was the general resurrection. Since God's purpose was to establish a just and non-violent world, it had to deal with the past before it could deal with the future and there was already a great backlog of injustice that had to be redeemed, a great crowd of martyrs who had to be vindicated.

If you believed as Jesus did and as Mark wrote, that the Kingdom of God was already here on earth, you were claiming that God's great cleansing had already started, then the bodily resurrection and vindication could indeed begin with Jesus at the head of those others who had died unjustly, or at least righteously before him. This is what Jesus' descent into hell was all about. That is what Jesus had to do on Holy Saturday.

 

 Easter Sunday: Mark 16.1-8

He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!

 

Without Easter, we wouldn't know about Jesus: if his story had ended at the crucifixion he would probably have been forgotten other that for passing references in contemporary sources. There would have been no community memory to pass on.

What kind of stories are the Easter stories, then? What language do they use? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or is it a combination?

Those of us who grew up as Christians in an overt Christian environment have an awareness of the Easter message, albeit an amalgam of the entirety of the four gospels and the gloss of Acts and the epistles.

Borg and Crossan use the terms "hard" and "soft" interpretation. The hard form, affirmed by Christians committed to ideas of biblical inerrancy, sees every detail as factually, literally and infallibly true. Many other Christians affirm a softer view: aware of differences in the accounts, they do not insist on the factual accuracy of every detail and recognise that witnesses to any event can have quite different recollections depending on a number of factors. (In my own classroom last week thirty fourteen year olds were unable to agree on the exact sequence of a simple cause and effect process.) Those who affirm the softer view are not concerned whether there was one angel (Mark and Matthew) or two (Luke) at the tomb and may disagree amongst themselves about the meaning of the word angel and therefore the nature of angels. They don't worry about where the disciples hid out after the crucifixion: Jerusalem (Luke) or Galilee (Matthew) but they do affirm the historicity of the basics: the tomb was really empty, this was because God transformed the body of Jesus and Jesus did appear to his disciples after his death in a form that could be seen, heard and touched.

So central is the historical accuracy of the stories for many people that if they didn't happen in this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity disappear. “If Christ has not been raised then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (St. Paul 1 Cor 15.14) At one and the same time some of us assent to Paul's statement while not necessarily assuming that it intrinsically points to the historical accuracy of a tomb empty of a physical body. (Note by Jack Parkes - "When I was an undergraduate my Professor of Theology, David Jenkins, left to become the Bishop of Durham and he got in deep water for saying such things and was roundly condemned as an atheist Bishop amongst those who followed the hard interpretation. He is still a byword for apostasy and heresy in certain circles of the CofE, unjustly so. "The Resurrection is more than a conjuring trick with old bones." he said. I was constantly amazed and disturbed that the words “more than” were excised from the text of his address.")

It must be the case that an emphasis on the historical facts of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that in another time could have been filmed as they unfolded, gets in the way of understanding them. On the one hand, it is a stumbling block for those who have difficulty in believing that the stories are factual. If such people think that believing these stories to be factually accurate is essential to being a Christian, then they can't be Christians. The issue is not simply whether "things like this" ever happen. Rather, the issue is generated by the stories themselves; often the differences are hard to reconcile, and their language often seems to be other than the language of historical reporting. We often do not get beyond the "Did they happen?" reply to the "What do they mean?" question.

When these stories are seen as history, their function is to report publicly observable events that could have been witnessed by anyone who was there. When we see these stories as parable we need to use the model of parable Jesus himself used - the truth of the story is not dependent on whether it is historically accurate: there was no Good Samaritan. Does that render the story meaningless? Parables can be true - truth filled and truthful - regardless of their factual accuracy and to worry about factual accuracy misses the point. The point lies in its meaning and in you and I getting that meaning.

Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factual accuracy. It's quite happy leaving that question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. As an example, an empty tomb without a meaning ascribed to it is simply an odd event. It is only when meaning is ascribed to it that it takes on significance. Parable can be based on a particular event (there could have been a Good Samaritan whose actions Jesus based his story on) but it need not be.

Effectively we are saying: believe, if you want, that the events strictly happened in that way. Now let’s talk about what they mean. Equally, if you're quite sure they didn't happen quite like that, fine. Now let's talk about what they mean.

Importantly parable and parabolic language can make truth claims: we should not think of history as truth and parable as fiction and therefore less important. Indeed, this identification is one of the central characteristics of modern western culture. Both Biblical literalists and people who reject theism completely do this: the former insist that the truth of the Bible depends on its literal accuracy and the latter see that the Bible cannot be literally and factually true and therefore don't think that it is true at all. What both miss is the fact that parable can be profoundly true independently of its historical accuracy. Asking the parabolic meaning of Biblical stories is always the most important question. The alternative of fixating on whether it happened in this way will likely lead one astray.

Mark's Easter story is very brief but he provides us with the first narrative of Easter. He does not report any appearance of the risen Jesus and the story ends very abruptly. His story starts with the women who saw Jesus' death and burial going to the tomb to anoint his body, concerned as to who will roll away the stone covering the entrance to the tomb. As they arrive, their question becomes irrelevant. They saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back. They enter the tomb, somewhat tentatively we might guess, to discover a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. We generally interpret that young man as an angel, but even that word is loaded with countless unhelpful images of wings and harps and halos thanks to medieval artists. Let's be clear: an angel is God's messenger. Let's strip away the fanciful appearance. He says to them "Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him."

Mark then tells us that the women were given a commission: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you." Though Mark does not recount any stories of the risen Jesus the stage is nevertheless set for such events. Then Mark's story abruptly ends. So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. This ending was deemed unsuitable as early as the second century and so a second ending was added in vs 9-20.

Without denying any factual accuracy of the story, let's look at this section as parable. It is powerfully evocative.

* Jesus was sealed in a tomb, but the tomb could not hold him and the stone has been rolled away.

* Jesus is not to be found in the land of the dead. "He is not here. Look this is the place where they laid him."

* Jesus has been raised. God's messenger tells the women this. Jesus who was crucified by the authorities has been raised by God.

* God has said Yes to Jesus and No to the powers who killed him. God has vindicated Jesus.

* His followers are promised “You will see him.”

* The command "Go back to Galilee" means go back to where the story began, to the start of the Gospel.

What do we hear at the start of the gospel? We hear about the way of the kingdom.

Without the emphasis on Easter as God's decisive reversal of the authorities verdict on Jesus, the cross is simply pain, agony and horror. It leads to a horrific theology: God's judgement means that we all deserve to suffer like this, but Jesus died in our place. God can spare us because Jesus is the substitutionary sacrifice for our sins. It also leads to a skewed view of the current world where we conclude that the powers are in control and Christianity is about the next world, not this one.

Easter as the reversal of Good Friday, on the other hand, means God's vindication of Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God, for God's justice and God's "no" to the powers who killed him, powers still very much alive in our world. Easter is about God as much as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God's great cleansing has begun, but it will not happen without us in terms of personal transformation and political transformation: dying to the old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being. In short, being born again.