I could tell you all about my dad without ever
mentioning how he died. Although, like most people, he faced
his impending death the same way he went at life, the cancer
that killed him was an unwelcome intrusion. It did not spring
from who he was.
Jesus' death, however, reveals most clearly his
identity and his missionespecially when we see it from
the perspective of Easter. The crucifixion is the centerpiece
of the Gospels. The cross shadows all four narratives from the
beginningin the fate of John the Baptist, who is the first
actor on the stage in Mark and whose destiny Luke links to Jesus
from their conceptions; in Matthew's account of the slaughter
of the innocents; in the dark mention of rejection in John's
Prologue. We cannot know who Jesus is, the evangelists insist,
until we know how he died. Indeed, our conception of Jesus'
death colors our vision of God, our sense of Jesus' mission
and our understanding of human suffering and death.
We think we know the story well. Musicians have
set the "seven last words," gleaned from the four Gospels, for
our reflection. We walk the Stations of the Cross, unaware that
they include details never mentioned in Scripture (Jesus falls
on the way to Calvary and Veronica's gesture of sympathy, for
example). Let's take a closer look at what the Gospels do tell
Making Drama From History
Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a hill outside
Jerusalem. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing about 100 C.E.
(Common Era), gives a nod to the facts with mention of a man
"who was put to death during the reign of Tiberius by the procurator
The Gospels display remarkable consensus about
many of the details: Jesus presented a challenge to his own
religious tradition. Some religious leaders, determined to be
rid of him, plotted with one of his own disciples, who agreed
to betray him. After celebrating an extraordinary meal with
his closest friends, Jesus was arrested on Mount Olivet, and
someone lopped off the ear of the high priest's servant in the
melee. Jesus was interrogated by the religious leaders, three
times denied by Peter and abandoned by most of his followers.
He was delivered to the Roman authorities for trial as an insurgent
and sentenced to death. He was scourged and crucified with two
other malefactors and laid in a nearby tomb.
So much for the facts. The rest is drama, woven
from the evangelists' separate emphases on different aspects
of Jesus' identity.
Mark, author of the oldest Gospel, stresses Jesus'
humanity. His account of Jesus' death speaks of God's plunge
not only into human life but also into the profoundest depths
of human misery. His Jesus dies alone, abandoned by all his
disciples (not until after Jesus' death does Mark tell us that
some women were "looking on from a distance"). Jesus speaks
just once from the cross, a lament drawn from Psalm 22: "My
God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" he screams and dies.
But at this moment of absolute human desolation, Mark plays
at last the card he has been holding close to his chest all
through the Gospel: The centurion in charge of the execution
cries out, "Truly this man was the Son of God!"
Matthew follows Mark's narrative very closely,
adding just a few touches of his own. Ever eager to convince
his Jewish-Christian audience that Jesus is the new Moses, the
fulfillment of the Scriptures, he weaves abundant Old Testament
references into the passion accountas he has throughout
his Gospel. Even the line that Christians have too often used
as a justification for persecuting Jews"His blood be upon
us and upon our children"echoes earlier writings. It is
a formula for assigning guilt to those personally responsible
for a death (see 2 Samuel 3:28-29; Jeremiah 26:15). It is not
a condemnation of the whole Jewish peopleas Matthew's
Jewish-Christian readers would have clearly understood.
Let's hit the pause button here and take a closer
look. There does seem to be anti-Jewish bias in the sacred texts.
John's Gospel especially speaks of Jesus' opponents as "the
Jews." But Jesus' family, disciples and admirers were also Jews.
So, for that matter, was Jesus himself. How did Christians develop
such bitter feelings toward the Jews?
A few years before the Gospels were written, Rome
invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the templeand with it,
the temple priesthood and a liturgy centered on animal sacrifice.
Maintaining Israel's ancient faith fell to laypeoplethe
Pharisees, whose concern for Jewish identity led them to enforce
strict orthodoxy. (In the 16th century, Catholics reacted much
the same way to the Reformation.)
Jewish worship became a kind of prayer meeting
held in the synagogue (from the Greek for assembly).
The service was a combination of Scripture, prayer and preaching
that laid the pattern for our Liturgy of the Word. Early Christians
came to the synagogues on the sabbath (Saturday) and on Sunday
broke the bread of Eucharist in the name of someone they called
the Son of God. That title bore the taint of polytheism to many
Jews. After all, Jews adhered so strictly to faith in the one
God that even mighty Rome excused them from offering sacrifice
to the gods.
In Matthew's day (sometime in the 80's), lively
discussions about Jesus' identity took place in the synagogues.
By John's time, the last decade of the first century, disagreements
had grown strong enough that the Jews had begun to eject the
"heretics," not only cutting them off from their religious roots
but also exposing them to deadly Roman accusations of "atheism."
At the same time, the gospel was spreading into
the Greek and Roman world. By the end of the first century,
the majority of Christians came from Gentile backgrounds. As
the Jews became "them," not "us," the followers of the man who
commanded love of enemies began to twist Scripture to blame
"them" for their Lord's death.
Back to the Drama
For Matthew, Jesus' last cry marks a birth pang.
The light of the new Israel breaks into the darkness of Calvary.
As in all four Gospels, the veil that shields the Holy of Holies
(which only the high priest could enter and he but once a year)
from the rest of the temple is rent top to bottom. Matthew adds
an earthquake and shattered rocks; the holy dead leave their
tombs to walk in the city. The whole Roman guard proclaims Jesus
the Son of God.
In Luke's narrative, Jesus is still the healer
and reconciler, still reaching out to sinners, women, Gentiles
and other outcasts. He turns toward Peter after his disciple's
threefold denial, and it is Jesus' glance, not the crowing cock,
that strikes remorse in Peter's breast. Luke's Jesus promises
redemption to the felon crucified beside him and speaks the
words that forever echo in Christian hearts: "Father, forgive
them, they know not what they do." And "all the people who had
gathered for this spectacle" head home weighted by remorse,
"beating their breasts"even while "all his acquaintances"
still stand at a distance (see Luke 23:48).
John tipped his hand in the opening sentence
of his Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word...." The
divine light shining in Jesus does not flicker in the dark and
bloody events of Good Friday. Even those who have lingered in
darkness, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, are drawn into
its radiance before the story ends.
John's passion lends an air of triumph to the
Good Friday liturgy. (We hear one of the others on Palm Sunday.)
His Jesus is fully in command from the moment of his arrest.
He puts his accusers on trial, questioning both the high priest
and Pilate, and claims his kingdom in Pilate's presence. No
Simon of Cyrene appears in this Gospel; Jesus carries his own
cross. His courtiers stand beneath his cruciform thronehis
mother and the beloved disciple among themand he binds
them in community. Even death awaits his decision. He says,
"It is finished," bows his head and hands over his spirit. His
burial is royal, not a hasty affair to be completed by the women
on Sunday morning. The amount of spices tucked into his burial
cloths would suit any king (see John 19:39-40).
John makes a significant shift in the time frame
of the passion. In the other Gospels Jesus' arrest occurs after
a Passover meal; in John he is led out to Calvary before
Passover beginsat the very hour the temple priests begin
to slaughter the lambs for the ritual supper. Jesus is the Lamb
of God whose blood marks the doorposts of God's people, his
bones unbroken (see Exodus 12:1-13; 46). From his pierced side
rush the living waters promised in the fourth chapter of John's
Rewind to Scene I
The above summary barely skims the surface of
the passion narratives. To enter fully into the drama, tum to
your Bible and read just the four versions of Scene I: the events
in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-52; Matthew 26:36-56; Luke 22:39-54;
In the first three accounts, a troubled and anxious
Jesus goes to the garden with the disciples who have witnessed
the high points of his life (the Transfiguration, the raising
of Jairus' daughter)Peter, James and John. He entreats
their support as he wrestles in prayer with his approaching
death, only to find them sleeping each time he goes back to
their company. (The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar
suggests that the last ritual cup of wine at the supper made
them drowsy!) Notice Luke's gentler touch: They sleep only once,
and Jesus does not chide them.
This is the only time in the Gospels we eavesdrop
on Jesus' prayer. It sounds remarkably like the Our Father (surprise!),
as does his admonition that the disciples should pray "not to
undergo the test." Mark's and Matthew's Jesus, like most of
us at times, gets no answer to his prayer. Luke's gains comfort
and strength. John's Jesus, of course, has no distress to pray
Then the arresting party arrives, led by Judas.
John's crowd includes Roman soldiersa hint of collusion
between "church" and state that surprises us if we forget that
the distinction didn't exist in Jesus' day. His milieu was more
like Khomeini's Iran than the United States.
Judas offers an agreed-upon kiss, which is helplessly
accepted in Mark and Matthew. Luke's Jesus holds the traitor
to account. Even Judas would not attempt such lese majeste in
Watch closely as a sword severs a man's ear. In
Mark, the swordsman is an unidentified "bystander"; the act
could be an accident in the press of the crowd. Matthew and
Luke put the offender in Jesus' company. Matthew's Jesus cannot
resist delivering a last lesson, warning that "all who take
the sword will perish by the sword." Luke's Jesus heals the
wound with a touch. John names the wounded man and the attacker,
and the awful truth is out. Peter denies his Master's teaching
before he denies the man!
Following Mark, Luke and Matthew echo Jesus' rebuke
to the secrecy of the arrest. Matthew's Jesus adds that the
show must go on in order to fulfill the Scriptures. John's Jesus
takes control, identifying himself with the divine name: I AMand
they all fall down.
Upon his arrest, all Jesus' friends flee
in Mark. One even slips free of the garment grabbed by a member
of the arresting party and "streaks" offleaving everything
to avoid following Jesus! If you read on, you'll find
Peter following at a distance in the other Gospels, accompanied
by "another disciple" in John.
By all means, read on! The story of Jesus' crucifixion
is a dramatic struggle between life and death, of the God-man
facing the powers of darkness, of triumph won in defeat. The
cross of Jesus is the enduring sign of God's faithful love and
the pattern for our lives.