Mark 15 presents us with the tragic sequence of events from Jesus’ trial up until His death and burial. Mark 15:1-5 begins with Jesus’ interrogation by Pontius Pilate. One of the interesting comments I’ve often read about Pilate is that he is presented in the Gospels as a sympathetic character in the midst of these sad events. The truth, apparently, is that he was quite the opposite. Some historians have told stories of Pilate sending out Roman spies to incite Israelite crowds into riots, so he could in turn send out soldiers to “quell” the crowds. Regardless, his interactions with Jesus seem to exemplify cowardice – even if he was sympathetic to Jesus, it wasn’t enough to stop him from sending an innocent man to his death.
What’s fascinating about all the exchanges between Christ and Pilate is that Jesus says very little in response to Pilate’s questioning. The little he does say, in response to Pilate’s question about Jesus being the king (“You have said so,” Mark 15:3), is ambiguous and could either mean “I am a king” – which is affirmed by St. John’s account of this conversation (John 18:33-38), or “you say that I am a king, but I say nothing,” which matches up to his silence on three different occasions: here, when he is interrogated by the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:61), and when He appears before Herod (Luke 23:9). His silence seems to confirm that Pilate’s line of questioning (like the Sanhedrin before him and Herod afterwards) are not done from a sincere heart – and to reply wouldn’t mean anything. It also affirms the prophecy of Isaiah 53, that the suffering servant was led silently, like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7-8).
Pilate’s attempt to release Jesus without declaring Him innocent, but as a Passover custom (Mark 15:6-15) sets up an ironic decision. The other prisoner offered up for freedom, Barrabas, was likely a member of a first century terrorist group (the Zealots), who were fighting for Israelite freedom from the Roman occupation. In short, Barrabas was precisely the sort of Messiah most first century Jews were expecting – a warrior of the mold of King David who would liberate Israel by force. Essentially, Barrabas makes the same claim as Jesus – that he has come to set Israel free – but understands this in a completely different way… as do the priests and the crowd, who call for his release instead of Jesus’. When Jesus is scourged (Mark 15:15), Jesus is subjected to a most brutal form of torture, using whips (flagellum) which would have been strengthened with bits of metal, rock, or bone at the end of three strips extending out from the end of the whip. These would have the effect of tearing at the flesh of the individual subject to scourging – a disturbing practice no matter how you imagine it. Many who were condemned to crucifixion were scourged beforehand.
Jesus’ suffering was amplified by the mockery of the Roman soldiers (Mark 15:16-20). While the crown of thorns would be painful enough – consider the effect of laying a cloak across his scourged body – possibly just long enough to let some of his wounds clot. When they take it off and lead Him to be crucified, it is possible that they would have re-opened the wounds on his back. While mocking Him, they ironically speak the truth of Jesus – calling him “King” with their words – but not with their hearts. We ought to be aware of this temptation in our lives – that we too may speak words of praise from our lips… but our hearts can be far from the meaning of our prayer and praise.
Mark 16:21-40 tells the familiar story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Unable to carry the Cross Himself, Simon of Cyrene is compelled to join Him on the road to Golgotha. This shared burden offers to perspectives on the way in which Jesus relates to us. First and foremost, Jesus wants our cooperation in the work of our salvation: while He has borne the burden of the cross once for all, we are invited to help Him to carry it, accepting the challenges and the burdens that each day lay upon us. We might also recognize that if He, being God, accepted help in the difficulties of His life… that we too might also recognize their is no shame in accepting (and asking for) help as we carry the crosses of our own lives. The other Gospels tell us that the thieves on either side of him offer a stark contrast: the one who mocks him along with the crowd, wishing to see one final deed of power; and the other who begs for His mercy. Both get their wish – and neither in a way they expected it – as after three hours on the cross, Jesus dies. The last words from His lips: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) echo both the words and the sentiments of Psalm 22, a psalm that seems at first quite dark… but which, like the death of Christ, ends in hope. The tearing of the curtain in the temple – which would have separated the inner court of the temple from the holy of holies – marks a significant shift in the dynamics of our relationship with God. Where He has seemed distant to the Israelites, speaking to them through the prophets, that which has separated us from Him (not only the curtain, but sin) has been torn in two. Thanks to the death of Jesus, we are able to be even closer to God than Adam and Eve ever were.
This chapter ends with Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, coming out of the woodwork to bury Him in a new tomb (Mark 15:42-47). Could Joseph have imagined what would take place in that tomb over those next few days? How would that have impacted the secrecy of his discipleship?
“The abbys of malice, which sin opens wide, has been bridged by his infinite charity. God does not abandon men. His plans foresee that the sacrifices of the Old Law were insufficient to repair our faults and re-establish the unity of what has been lost: a man who was God must offer himself up… now, it is all over. The work of our Redemption has been accomplished. We are now children of God, because Jesus has died for us, and His death has ransomed us.” -St. Josemaria Escriva