By Bryan Owen
As we bring our journey through the Gospel according to Mark to a close, we come to the climax of the story, the destination to which Jesus has been traveling since he first walked through Galilee proclaiming the message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15 NRSV).
As the 19th-century biblical scholar Martin Kähler once noted, the Gospel according to Mark is “a passion narrative with an extended introduction.” The shadow of the cross looms large over the story Mark tells of Jesus and his ministry. It all points to Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
This central role of the cross in the story of Jesus is a point on which Mark agrees with the other three evangelists. As Fleming Rutledge notes:
Where all the evangelists agree… is the massive attention they give to the passion narrative and the way they aim their Gospels toward the cross as the climax of the story of Jesus. In all four accounts, the events prior to the passion are structured to be a prologue to it and to find culmination in it — with the resurrection as vindication and victory.
The passion of Jesus lies at the center of the good news that God’s reign of perpetual peace, reconciling love, and perfect justice is at hand. It’s a surprising and paradoxical claim. Let’s take a closer look to see how events so painful, tragic, and even terrifying can be good news for the whole creation.
It begins with condemnation and a miscarriage of justice.
After subjecting Jesus to a mock trial with trumped up charges, the religious leaders of Israel condemn Jesus and send him to Pilate in the hopes that he will receive the death penalty. Standing before Pilate, Jesus, who is innocent of wrongdoing, refuses to defend himself against the charge that he had proclaimed himself King of the Jews over and against Caesar. Pilate, who represents the privilege and power of an empire that could ruthlessly crush the poor and powerless, caves in to a mob who demands the crucifixion of Jesus and the release of a known murderer and insurrectionist. And so Jesus is handed over to be mocked, tortured, and murdered on the cross.
Fleming Rutledge again offers important insights when she writes:
By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of humiliation, entering into total solidarity with those who are without help. He, the King of kings and Lord of lords, voluntarily underwent the mockery of the multitudes, and, in the time of greatest extremity, he could do nothing to help himself (Mark 15:31). (p. 132)
In the process, Jesus suffers an even deeper blow: a sense of complete abandonment by not only his disciples but also by God the Father. Jesus, the Son of God who completely identified himself with those who suffer oppression, victimization, and injustice, also identified with anyone who has ever felt cut off from the source of life. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out, uttering the words of a psalm of lamentation as a final prayer of anguish before dying (15:34).
With the condemnation, torture, and murder of Jesus, we see the horrific evil of this world in all of its callous brutality. We see that the gospel — the proclamation of the good news that God’s reign is coming — cannot be separated from facing the reality of suffering and evil without minimizing or rationalizing it. And we see that the cross of Jesus overcomes those harsh realities.
A surprising eyewitness bears testimony to this truth. In striking contrast to the religious authorities, the condemning crowd, and the bystanders near the cross, a Roman centurion has an epiphany when Jesus gives a final cry and breathes his last. Somehow, by witnessing Jesus’ death on the cross, this centurion also grasped the truth of Jesus’ identity. “Truly this man was God’s Son!” he cries out in amazement (15:39). He saw God at work in the death of Jesus.
He probably didn’t fully understand what his confession meant (can any of us fully grasp it?). But he was right. Jesus is the Son of God. And God was uniquely at work in Jesus’ death on the cross.
N. T. Wright puts it like this:
The pain and tears of all the years were met together on Calvary. The sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth; the forgiving love stored up in God’s future was poured out into the present; the voices that echo in a million human hearts, crying for justice, longing for spirituality, eager for relationship, yearning for beauty, drew themselves together into a final scream of desolation. … The death of Jesus of Nazareth as the king of the Jews, the bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people of old, is either the most stupid, senseless waste and misunderstanding the world has ever seen, or it is the fulcrum around which world history turns.
As Wright rightly notes, Christians believe that Jesus’ death is, indeed, the fulcrum around which world history turns. And as such, it is the means by which all of the stupid, senseless, tragic, and evil deeds of this world are taken into the divine life for healing and redemption.
An even bigger surprise than the centurion’s confession comes when, early on the third day after Jesus’ death on the cross, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bring spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body. To get a feel for what it might have been like for them to discover the stone rolled away from the tomb and a strange young man inside who tells them that Jesus has risen, imagine the following scenario. You travel to the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a recently deceased loved one. But when you get there, you discover that the grave has been dug up and the coffin is open without a body inside. Then a stranger shows up who says your loved one has come back to life. It would be shocking and terrifying beyond words.
Little wonder, then, that Mark tells us that the women “fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8 ESV). Another translation tells us that the women were “overcome with terror and dread” (CEB).
Astonishment, dread, fear, and terror: this was the first response to the news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. And that’s where Mark’s Gospel abruptly leaves us.
Scholars have long debated why Mark ends like this. Was it intentional? Was the original ending somehow lost? Was the later addition of verses 9 through 20 an attempt to correct a mistake by offering a more satisfying conclusion? We don’t know.
But whether it was intentional or not, the abrupt ending highlights a reality we do well to mark. Not having experienced the first Easter for ourselves, it’s easy for Alleluias to roll off our tongues without really pausing to reflect on how shockingly odd the central claim of the Christian faith really is. For the Easter message that God raised Jesus to bodily life again after bodily death turns the world upside down. It flies in the face of experience and common sense. It mocks the pretensions of human wisdom. It undermines our faith in the all-sufficiency of reason. It boldly announces that a power has been unleashed into this world against which tyrants and bullies, sickness and disease, loss and grief, fear and shame, sin and evil, and death and decay are powerless. And it proves a staggering truth: that God loves this world in all of its dazzling diversity, and God loves each and every one of us, so very much that He will go to any lengths to guarantee our salvation, including suffering the ravages of death and hell so that we don’t have to.
Perhaps once the initial fear and amazement begin to lift and the revolutionary implications of Jesus’ resurrection start sinking in, we’re ready to turn to Mark’s longer ending to hear the risen Jesus commission his followers with these words: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (16:15 ESV). Share the good news with every creature under the sun. For the one who came proclaiming the nearness of God’s reign — the one who embodied that reign in his confrontation with the powers of sin, evil, and death — has triumphed.
The message Mark proclaims in his gospel assures us that the pain and suffering, tragedy, fear and terror of this world have been decisively defeated by Jesus. And the cross stands at the center of that victory. As Minka Sprague sums it up:
Mark urgently tells us that the cross means life. It is if Mark says, “Here, look at this now and see this well: Though he walks toward crucifixion, Jesus brings life to the world.”
That truly is good news for the whole creation!
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
 Quoted in Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey, p. 151.
 Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, p. 41.
 Minka Shura Sprague, One to Watch, One to Pray: Introducing the Gospels, p. 35.