During the first three hours of his execution, Jesus was beaten and then despoiled by Roman soldiers as they cast lots for his clothes, mocked by Jewish bystanders and the Temple authorities for his apparent inability to destroy the Temple or save himself, and scorned by those crucified with him as a naive pretender to political revolution. The public humiliation was complete.
The last three hours, however, are apocalyptic and triumphal. The distinction between the first three hours (which began at 9:00 AM–the third hour) and the last three hours (which began at 12:00 PM–the sixth hour) is significant. The storyline swings like a hinge from public humiliation to a triumphal death. In this moment the “strong man” (Mark 3:27), whose triumph within the narrative seems so complete at noon, is bound when Jesus breathed his last. The death of Jesus is a judgment against the powers (both imperial and Temple); it is the defeat of the “strong man.”
One way to see this is to note the apocalyptic language that begins and ends this section: darkness covers the land and the curtain of the Temple is rent asunder. This darkness has been variously understood. Many think it pictures divine sorrow as in Amos 8:9-10. However, given the Passover context, it seems more likely that the darkness mimics the darkness that covered Egypt. In that moment, Yahweh was doing battle with the gods of Egypt (and Pharoah). The war would determine which G(g)od reigned. Yahweh was triumphant. The darkness of the cross is an apocalyptic judgment against the powers just as the plague of darkness over Egypt (cf. Isaiah 60:2; Jeremiah 13:16; Joel 2:2, 31; Amos 5:20; Zephaniah 1:15). It is a moment when God creates calamity for the powers (cf. Isaiah 45:7).
This apocalyptic judgment is also pictured in the ripping of the veil in the temple. Most probably, though uncertain, this is the veil which covered the entrance to the Holy Place (rather than the Holy of Holies) as this would have been visible to the public. The mockers had taunted Jesus with his predictions about the destruction of the Temple at the cross and in the moment of his death the Temple is symbolically destroyed. This anticipates the total destruction of the Temple (as predicted in Mark 13:2). The death of Jesus is a triumph; it effects, in principle, the destruction of the Temple. The Temple authorities, as are all powers, are judged by the execution of Jesus.
Between these two apocalyptic judgments, Jesus cries out twice. Mark quotes the first and merely notes the second. The first quotes Psalm 22, the great lament Psalm to which Mark has alluded several times in this crucifixion narrative. The second cry reminds us of the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel as Jesus and John the Baptist are described as “criers.”
The first cy is the most well-known (and well-worn) of the two cries. Many see a crisis within the Trinity at this moment as if the unity of the Triune God is disrupted as the Son becomes “sin” (literally) for the sake of humanity. It is sometimes pictured as if the Father has turned his back on the Son. This Godforsakenness goes to the depths of the Triune relationship and separates the Father from the Son.
I find this unconvincing in several ways. First, there is nothing in the text of Mark that indicates that this is its meaning. Interpreters must draw on some language in Paul make this case, and that language is often misunderstood. Second, the unity of the Trinity is inviolable and nothing in this text implies that that unity was destroyed. Third, exegetically, Mark has interpreted the humiliation of the Son through the lens of Psalm 22–the whole Psalm and not just the first verse. When Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 he invokes the whole Psalm and not simply a single verse. He is testifying that he identifies with the Psalmist. While Psalm 22 begins with the cries of lament and rehearses the humiliation of the sufferer, it also ends triumphantly. The Psalmist praises God, entrusts himself to Yahweh, and anticipates deliverance. Psalm 22 moves from lament to a cry of triumph. Jesus, on the cross, does the same.
What, then, does the quotation of Psalm 22:1 mean? Did the Father abandon the Son? Did the Son feel abandoned? I think the answer is yes–the Father did abandon the Son and the Son felt it. But it was not a spiritual or relational abandonment. Rather, the Father abandoned the Son to death though he did not abandon him in death. The Father did not save the Son from death; the Son was crucified. But, as we will learn in the Markan narrative, the Father did not abandon the Son in the grave. And the Father, ever present, judged the powers through darkness and ripping the veil of the Temple.
The second cry is a cry of triumph. This is evidenced in two ways. First, in the next verse the Temple curtain rips apart. The death of the Son symbolically judges the Temple complex. Second, the narrative link with the beginning of Mark’s Gospel is crucial. Jesus’ life ends as John the Baptist’s began (Mark 1:3). They shout out the reality of the coming of God. They both declare the kingdom of God and shout in the wilderness the triumphal truth of God’s victory. Third, another narrative link is the “great voice” (or, loud cry) is exactly the language that describes the conquest of the demons in Mark 1:26 and 5:7. Fourth, it is the “voice” of triumph and delight that Jesus heard at his baptism (1:11) and Transfiguration (9:7). These are the only occurrences of “voice” (phone; Mark 1:3, 11, 26; 5:7; 9:7; 15:34, 37). This “voice” proclaims the identity and reality of the kingdom of God. That kingdom triumphs through the death of Jesus. His death is no failure, no lack of power. On the contrary, it arises out of his obedience to the will of the Father and it is the triumph of his kingdom.
At the center of these rings of judgments and cries is the invocation of Elijah. In what is perhaps another allusion to Psalm 22, one of the bystanders (or soldiers?) offered Jesus a sedative drink. It appears that this is a hostile act intended either to prolong the crucifixion to extend the suffering so that they might see if Elijah shows up to help Jesus.
The allusions to Elijah are further mockings–daring in the light of the apocalyptic darkness. Elijah invokes Messianic images of the coming Kingdom. Will God finally deliver this suffering one? Will God triumph in this moment? Will the kingdom come to help this suffering one?
The reader knows that their mockery is a mockery. Elijah has already come, and he suffered the same fate that his cousin now suffers. The powers executed both Elijah (John the Baptist) and Jesus. There is no last-minute rescue. The heavenly hosts do not show up. God’s prophets–Elijah and Jesus–die.
Jesus is abandoned to his death but this death is his triumph. His death is the triumph of the kingdom of God. His death judges the powers and binds the “strong man.”
Disciples don’t expect “last-minute” rescues in kingdom ministry. They, too, are often abandoned to death but in that death they are triumphant! Anyone ever read Revelation?