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THE DEATH OF JESUS
“And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, He calleth Elijah. And one ran, and filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed, and gave Him to drink, saying, Let be; let us see whether Elijah cometh to take Him down. And Jesus uttered a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. And when the centurion, which stood by over against Him, saw that He so gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God. And there were also women beholding from afar: among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; who, when He was in Galilee, followed Him, and ministered unto Him; and many other women which came up with Him unto Jerusalem.” MARK 15:33–41 (R.V.)
THREE hours of raging human passion, endured with Godlike patience, were succeeded by three hours of darkness, hushing mortal hatred into silence, and perhaps contributing to the penitence of the reviler at His side. It was a supernatural gloom, which an eclipse of the sun was impossible during the full moon of Passover. Shall we say that, as it shall be in the last days, nature sympathized with humanity, and the angel of the sun hid his face from his suffering Lord?
Or was it the shadow of a still more dreadful eclipse, for now the eternal Father veiled His countenance from the Son in whom He was well pleased?
In some true sense God forsook Him. And we have to seek for a meaning of this awful statement — inadequate no doubt, for all our thoughts must come short of such a reality, but free from pervarication and evasion.
It is wholly unsatisfactory to regard the verse as merely the heading of a Psalm, (Psalm 22) cheerful for the most part, which Jesus inaudibly recited. Why was only this verse uttered aloud? How false an impression must have been produced upon the multitude, upon St. John, upon the penitent thief, if Jesus were suffering less than the extreme of spiritual anguish. Nay, we feel that never before can the verse have attained its fullest meaning, a meaning which no experience of David could more than dimly shadow forth, since we ask in our sorrows, Why have we forsaken God? but Jesus said, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?
And this unconsciousness of any reason for desertion disproves the old notion that He felt Himself a sinner, and “suffered infinite remorse, as being the chief sinner in the universe, all the sins of mankind being His.” One who felt thus could neither have addressed God as “My God,” nor asked why He was forsaken.
Still less does it allow us to believe that the Father perfectly identified Jesus with sin, so as to be “wroth” with Him, and even “to hate Him to the uttermost.” Such notions, the offspring of theories carried to a wild and irreverent extreme, when carefully examined impute to the Deity confusion of thought, a mistaking of the Holy One for a sinner, or rather for the aggregate of sinners. But it is very different when we pass from the Divine consciousness to the hearing of God toward Christ our representative, to the outshining or eclipse of His favor. That this was overcast is manifest from the fact that Jesus everywhere else addresses Him as My Father, here only as My God. Even in the garden it was Abba Father, and the change indicates not indeed estrangement of heart, but certainly remoteness. Thus we have the sense of desertion, combined with the assurance which once breathed in the words, O God, Thou art my God.
Thus also it came to pass that He who never forfeited the most intimate communion and sunny smile of heaven, should yet give us an example at the last of that utmost struggle and sternest effort of the soul, which trusts without experience, without emotion, in the dark, because God is God, not because I am happy.
But they who would empty the death of Jesus of its sacrificial import, and leave only the attraction and inspiration of a sublime life and death, must answer the hard questions, How came God to forsake the Perfect One? Or, how came He to charge God with such desertion? His follower, twice using this very word, could boast that he was cast down yet not forsaken, and that at his first trial all men forsook him, yet the Lord stood by him (II Corinthians 4:9; II Timothy 4:16, 17). How came the disciple to be above his Master?
The only explanation is in His own word, that His life is a ransom in exchange for many (Mark 10:45). The chastisement of our peace, not the remorse of our guiltiness, was upon Him. No wonder that St. Mark, who turns aside from his narrative for no comment, no exposition, was yet careful to preserve this alone among the dying words of Christ.
And the Father heard His Son. At that cry the mysterious darkness passed away, and the soul of Jesus was relieved from its burden, so that He became conscious of physical suffering; and the mockery of the multitude was converted into awe. It seemed to them that His Eloi might indeed bring Elias, and the great and notable day, and they were willing to relieve the thirst which no stoical hardness forbade that gentlest of all sufferers to confess. Thereupon the anguish that redeemed the world was over; a loud voice told that exhaustion was not complete; and Jesus “gave up the ghost.”99The ingenious and plausible attempt to show that His death was caused by a physical rupture of the heart has one fatal weakness. Death came too late for this; the severest pressure was already relieved.
Through the veil, that is to say His flesh, we have boldness to enter into the holy place; and now that He had opened the way, the veil of the temple was rent asunder by no mortal hand, but downward from the top. The way into the holiest was visibly thrown open, when sin was expiated, which had forfeited our right of access.
And the centurion, seeing that His death itself was abnormal and miraculous, and accompanied with miraculous signs, said, Truly this was a righteous man. But such a confession could not rest there: if He was this, He was all He claimed to be; and the mockery of His enemies had betrayed the secret of their hate; He was the Son of God.
“When the centurion saw” . . . “There were also many women beholding.” Who can overlook the connection? Their gentle hearts were not to be utterly overwhelmed: as the centurion saw and drew his inference, so they beheld, and felt, however dimly, amid sorrows that benumb the mind, that still, even in such wreck and misery, God was not far from Jesus.
When the Lord said, It is finished, there was not only an end of conscious anguish, but also of contempt and insult. His body was not to see corruption, nor was a bone to be broken, nor should it remain in hostile hands.
Respect for Jewish prejudice prevented the Romans from leaving Jesus’ body to molder on the cross, and the approaching Sabbath was not one to be polluted. And knowing this, Joseph of Arimathea boldly went in to Pilate and asked for it. It was only secretly and in fear that he had been a disciple, but the deadly crisis had developed what was hidden, he had opposed the crime of his nation in their council, and in the hour of seeming overthrow he chose the good part. Boldly the timid one “went in,” braving the scowls of the priesthood, defiling himself moreover, and forfeiting his share in the sacred feast, in hope to win the further defilement of contact with the dead.
Pilate was careful to verify so rapid a death; but when he was certain of the fact, “he granted the corpse to Joseph,” as a worthless thing. His frivolity is expressed alike in the unusual verb1010I.e. in the New Testament, where it occurs but once besides. and substantive: he “freely bestowed,” he “gave away” not “the body” as when Joseph spoke of it, but “the corpse,” the fallen thing, like a prostrated and uprooted tree that shall revive no more. Wonderful it is to reflect that God had entered into eternal union with what was thus given away to the only man of rank who cared to ask for it. Wonderful to think what opportunities of eternal gain men are content to lose; what priceless treasures are given away, or thrown away as worthless. Wonderful to imagine the feelings of Joseph in heaven today, as he gazes with gratitude and love upon the glorious Body which once, for a little, was consigned to his reverent care.
St. John tells us that Nicodemus brought a hundred pound weight of myrrh and aloes, and they together wrapped Him in these, in the linen which had been provided; and Joseph laid Him in his own new tomb, undesecrated by mortality.
And there Jesus rested. His friends had no such hope as would prevent them from closing the door with a great stone. His enemies set a watch, and sealed the stone. The broad moon of Passover made the night as clear as the day, and the multitude of strangers, who thronged the city and its suburbs, rendered any attempt at robbery even more hopeless than at another season.
What indeed could the trembling disciples of an executed pretender do with such an object as a dead body? What could they hope from the possession of it? But if they did not steal it, if the moral glories of Christianity are not sprung from deliberate mendacity, why was the body not produced, to abash the wild dreams of their fanaticism? It was fearfully easy to identify. The scourging, the cross, and the spear, left no slight evidence behind, and the broken bones of the malefactors completed the absolute isolation of the sacred body of the Lord.
The providence of God left no precaution unsupplied to satisfy honest and candid inquiry. It remained to be seen, would He leave Christ's soul in Hades, or suffer His Holy One (such is the epithet applied to the body of Jesus) to see corruption?
Meantime, through what is called three days and nights — a space which touched, but only touched, the confines of a first and third day, as well as the Saturday which intervened, Jesus shared the humiliation of common men, the divorce of soul and body. He slept as sleep the dead, but His soul was where He promised that the penitent should come, refreshed in Paradise.
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