Welcome to the Coffee Cup Commentaries. We are continuing our study of the Gospel according to St. Mark, going very quickly through chapter 15, partly because the events of that wonderful and terrible and saving day went very quickly. Usually it took you a couple of days, hanging on the cross, to die, but this was over in just a few hours. So we return to our study, looking at the crucifixion of Christ in Mark 15:33ff.
When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elōi, elōi, lama sabachthani,” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, he is calling for Elijah.” Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”
And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. When the centurion who was standing right in front of him saw the way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they used to follow him and minister to him, and there were many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.
So let’s gather up our courage and look at this last, quick description of our Lord’s final hours. The sixth hour came; that was about noon. And from noon, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, which is about three p.m. And the sense of it is, at this eclipse, that the poetic truth, the real truth, the theological truth, why God allowed this eclipse, as it were, this had less to do with astronomy and more in its real meaning as the sun hiding its face from the outrage. As all of the Orthodox poetry tells you, this is an outrage of the Creator being held in contempt by his creation. So the rest of his creation cringes at the sight, and the sun covers its face, as it were, rather than look at God outraged.
At the ninth hour, towards the end, Jesus cried out. “Boaō” is the saying: shouted with a megalē phonē, a great, a loud voice: “Elōi, elōi, lama sabachthani,” from Psalm 22 and its early verses, which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is difficult to know, to pierce the veil of this tremendous depth of meaning, when the Father forsook the Son. People have written all sorts of unhelpful theological verses about God cannot look at sin and all of this sort of stuff and that’s why God forsook him. I would not go there; I would stand at a distance in humility and confess my inability to understand the immensity of this: when the Father forsakes the Son. This is, I think, not so much… don’t look at it juridically like some sort of… like a lawyer. Look at it like a lover. Look at it to say that this is the immensity of the suffering that Christ endured for us, to be abandoned and to enter into the final and complete darkness.
He is speaking in the Hebrew language, “Elōi, elōi,” which means, “My God, my God.” Some of the bystanders heard it, and perhaps because his throat is very parched they can’t understand quite what he’s saying, and they think instead of “Elōi, elōi, my God, my God,” it’s, “Eli, Eli.” Some of them said, “Look, he’s calling for Elijah.” Especially if you’re speaking in Aramaic and your Hebrew’s not that good, it was understood that Elijah was the rescuer of innocent men, and no doubt they thought that he’s calling for Elijah to save him because he thinks that he is innocent and they want to preserve his consciousness with the sour wine that was there.
The sour wine was not given in mockery; it was the wine of the poor. It was what we find in the Book of Ruth as part of your picnic for going out on the fields to work; this is the sour wine that you would have to drink. It was the drink of the poor, and there was some there as well. So they’re going to give Christ this oxos, this sour wine, to prolong his consciousness and to allow him to speak. Someone runs up, fills a sponge with the sour wine, and puts it on a reed to reach up to the more prominent and higher cross to give him a drink, saying, “Let’s see indeed whether Elijah’s going to answer his prayer.”
And Jesus uttered a loud cry—megalē phonē is the word—and breathed his last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. I believe that this is the veil not between the holy place and the holy of holies but the holy place and the forecourt. The sense of it is not, as I would suggest, that the veil of the temple is now rent to allow access into the holy of holies. That’s all true, in the Letter to the Hebrews, but I don’t think that’s what fits the poetry and the feel and the mood of Mark’s gospel. This is not a wonderful thing in the eyes of the Jews, that now we have access into the holy of holies. This is a part of the outrage; this is a part of the mourning. The sun mourns when it hides its face, and the temple mourns, as it were, like the rending of garments. You would rend your garments when it’s a catastrophe. You put a little cut in the top of your garment and tear it, your garment, in two from top to bottom as you rend your garments, and this is the point here, that, as it were, God rends his garments. The temple rends its garments from top to bottom at the thought of God dying.
When all of these things took place, especially with the sun being darkened, the centurion was standing opposite him, right in front of him, [and] saw the way he breathed his last. That is to say, not dying slowly and involuntarily by degrees, but dismissing his spirit and dying voluntarily. He breathes his last in this way. He had heard all of the claims, and the centurion said that these claims… what else can you say but that the claims must have been true? “Truly this man was, as he claimed, the Son of God.”
The marginal notes say, “a son of the God” or “a son of God,” or things like this. No, no. You need to translate it “the Son of God.” Why? Because that’s what he would have heard. He would have heard that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. What a weird thing to say. And when you see how he dies then realize when you read the gospels with the earthquake as well and the temple veil being torn in two, darkness covering the face of the earth—what can this mean except that his claims to divinity were true? And Mark includes this not just to show that everyone can tell, even the benighted Romans can tell, even the crucifying centurions can tell that he was an innocent man, but this confession of faith foreshadows the conversion of the Gentiles in the Church. This was the first Gentile confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but it would not be the last.
Then we conclude with the final verses. The women are there, looking on to see where he’s going to be buried. Some women were looking on from a distance: Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James the Mikros, so-called brother of our Lord, I would suggest; and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they used to follow him and serve him (diakoneo). And there were many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. Why mention these women? Because they will figure very quickly in the burial and the empty tomb. Mark wants to stress: these were eyewitnesses. The Church’s faith in the resurrection was based on the witness and the sight of people that were there. They saw him die, they would see where he was buried, and they would find the empty tomb.