By Matt Boulter
In the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago in 1962, German theologian Karl Barth was asked by a student to summarize his whole life’s work in a single sentence. In a flash Barth’s brilliant mind returned to a children’s song taught to him by his mother: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Yet Barth’s profound quip is not the only way to summarize the basic point of Christian theology. Another 20th century German theologian, Oscar Cullmann, viewed the story of Scripture in a different way, through the lens of Heilsgeschichte, or the history of redemption. For Cullmann, the most profound thing we can say about the Bible is that it is the story God’s work in history to bring about his purposes. And what are those purposes? Simply this: to dwell together in love and communion with his creation, especially with his sons and daughters, in the new heavens and new earth. For Cullmann, then, the Bible is preeminently eschatological.
Cullmann’s lens is especially apt for this week’s passages from Mark’s Gospel, for here Jesus apocalyptically unveils the culmination of redemptive history by channeling the spirit of Daniel 7 and its counterpart, Psalm 110:1 (the most frequently quoted Old Testament verse in in the New Testament). As in Daniel’s vision (7:13-14), the climactic moment takes place in a throne room, to which the “Son of Man comes … with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26).
Note that the entire discussion of the end of the age takes place in the context of the Jerusalem Temple (13:1). If there is a single key to unlocking the Olivet Discourse it is the temple. It is here that the abomination of desolation will be set up (as in Daniel 7), and it is this which Jesus redefines in terms of his own body (John 2:19, 22). When the Roman armies, led by Titus, descend upon Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the world definitively realizes that the decisive shift in world history has now taken place: God’s presence dwells no longer in a structure of inert stones but rather in a decentralized, global community of living stones in which every part and member lives “according to the whole” (kata holos, Acts 9:31).
“Decisive shift?” When viewed in connection with the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, yes: the destruction of the temple (prefigured by the rending of the temple veil in Matt. 27:51) is the decisive shift in the historia salutis of humanity. In this regard it is like D-Day, June 6, 1944, as Cullmann famously suggested. On that day, on a beach in Normandy, the Allied forces of World War II achieved the tactical breakthrough which would ripple out toward the ultimate victory on VE Day (May 8, 1945).
So it is here in Mark 13 as well. Jesus is teaching his disciples that the work of the Son of Man — his life, death, resurrection, and ascension — will achieve the tactical victory which will turn the tide of history toward its true resolution: uncompromised, superabundant peace with God (a return to Eden, but better). This tactical victory will shake the cosmos: both literally in the destruction of the temple (together with the havoc it will wreak, 13:14–23), and apocalyptically/symbolically in the disruption of the heavenly bodies (13:25), the latter being a familiar trope in the Hebrew Bible.
And yet, as of the beginning of chapter 14, this tactical victory has not yet been achieved, for the Passover is still a couple of days away (14:1). In this chapter, at least twelve discrete events or “moments” are narrated:
- Narrator comment: the chief priests and scribes want to kill Jesus. (14:2)
- An anointing: the woman with the alabaster jar (14:3-9)
- Judas seeks to betray Jesus. (14:10-11)
- Passover preparations (14:12-16)
- Reclining at table: premonitions of betrayal (14:17-21)
- Passover redefined: the institution of a new covenant (14:22-5)
- Back at the Mount of Olives: “You will all be scattered” and Peter’s insistence (14:26-31)
- In the Garden of Gethsemane: “Watch and pray,” but the disciples sleep. (14:32-42)
- Judas, swords, and clubs; the disciples scatter. (14:43-50)
- Young man with linen cloth (14:51-2)
- Interrogation before the high priest (14:53-65)
- Peter’s three denials (14:66-72)
What do they have to do with the “tactical victory” of Jesus, intimated and predicted in chapter 13?
Well, if this victory is paradoxically a defeat which centrally involves self-sacrifice (as the Church, with its centuries of meditating on the passion of Christ in light of the old covenant Scriptures, has taught in concert with the apostles themselves), ten of these events make good sense. Most of them (seven by my count) — numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 11 — lead dramatically yet inexorably to the cross, where the tactical victory will occur (or at least be initiated); they propel the dramatic action forward. Two of them — numbers 4 and 6, both having to do with the Passover meal and its “non-identical repetition” as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Eucharist — are essentially hermeneutical, providing an interpretive lens through which to understand the tactical victory of the cross.
This leaves three events or moments which resist easy categorization as either dramatic impetus or interpretive lens. They are: the anointing of Jesus by the woman in the house of Simon the leper at Bethany (2), the cryptically mysterious young man with linen cloth (10), and Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ in the courtyard of the High Priest’s palace (12).
I take these one by one. First, while the act of the woman who “wastes” lavish resources on Jesus — resources which could have been used to serve the poor, or to line Judas’s purse (as John’s Gospel hints: 12:1-8) — could be viewed simply as a catalyst to further the dramatic action (since surely this event fanned the flames of anger of the religious authorities who opposed Jesus), I think there is a deeper point. I spoke above of the intimate communion which is at once the origin (Garden of Eden) and the destiny of our humanity with God. What better picture than this — the woman’s act of loving devotion, worship with reckless abandon — to display the quality of this intimate communion which we once had, and will have once again with God?
Second, and quite briefly, the cryptic mention of a young man who loses his linen garment is a conundrum which has haunted readers of the New Testament for centuries. To my mind, what makes the most sense is to take this reference as a personal “signature” of authorship. Like John likely does in chapter 21 of his gospel, here Mark is hinting that he, the author of the narrative, was an actual eye-witness of these crucial events. He was really there, up close and personally involved.
Last, Peter’s three denials, in fulfillment of Jesus’s earlier prediction: for me this vignette profoundly points to the decisive role of the passion in the life of Christ’s followers, both corporately and individually. No other event in the New Testament more vividly alludes to the post-Pentecost “life and times” of the apostolic community. Just think about Peter’s career in establishing the community of the Jesus movement, the first-generation church. The same Peter, for example, who first planted the gospel seed in the community of Gentiles (in the house of Cornelius, Acts 10) is the same one who denied Christ in the face of Gentile hostility. What makes the difference in Peter’s life? What explains the “before” and “after” of his character?
Only the passion of Christ — his death and resurrection, bound with the surrounding complex of events, including Pentecost and the rending of the temple veil — could convert Peter from a person of fear to a preacher of gospel love for the whole world.
As for the world, so also for Peter: the great event which divides “before” and “after” is the cross of Jesus Christ.
So it is in our lives, as well. How frequently do we resist the cross, despising its shame, wanting to forgo its painful weight? Yet, the Spirit calls us through the cross. Not around it, not bypassing it, but through it. Through the cross: this is the Spirit’s call to Peter, to the world, and to each one of us.
The cross of Christ: the tactical victory which is also the axis mundi. It shapes and determines the cosmic history of the world, as well as the personal history of every follower of Christ.
Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and recently completed a PhD in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.