The Gospel we just heard is Mark’s Passion Narrative, his telling of the suffering and death of Christ. Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing with particular attention this year in the Church, is sometimes called a Passion Narrative with a long introduction, because the enemies of Christ begin to plot his death as early as chapter two of Mark’s Gospel.
Most scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel and not Matthew’s was the first to be written. And the earliest preaching about Jesus focused on his suffering and death. Consider the preaching of St. Paul, who in his first letter to the Corinthians said, “we proclaim Christ crucified.” (1 Cor 1:23) The whole point of Mark’s Gospel is to put down in written form the same message of Paul: that Christ, the Son of God, was crucified.
In today’s reading of the Passion Narrative, we hear the dramatic climax of the Gospel of Mark.
In fact, you could say that the entire Gospel of Mark was written to in order to get to one particular verse. It could be called the “thesis statement” of Mark’s Gospel. And it is spoken by the most unlikely of characters.
This particular verse, this “thesis statement” is the 39th verse of the 15th chapter and it reads thus: “When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”
This single verse, in beautiful simplicity and brevity, says perhaps everything we need to know about Jesus, his purpose in coming to earth, and the effect it has on those who encounter him.
Let’s consider this verse part by part.
The character Mark chooses to deliver his thesis statement is the most unlikely of characters. He is not a Jew. Not a disciple of Christ. He does not even believe in the God of Abraham. He is a pagan. What’s more, he is the one in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is he who puts Christ on the cross. And yet, he, who is responsible for Christ’s death, is given the grace of conversion and becomes a believer in Christ.
“...who stood facing him...”
The centurion is facing Jesus. He is oriented towards him. This is much more than just a minute detail describing his position. It means to say that he has his eyes literally and figuratively fixed on Jesus. Indeed, his entire life is now pointed towards Christ. Whereas, all of Jesus’ disciples fled in fear at his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, now it is the centurion of all people, who remains with Jesus.
“...saw how he breathed his last...”
Moments before, Jesus’ enemies challenged him to prove his divinity by means of a miracle. “Come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” However, the centurion does not require a miracle to believe. Instead, it is in seeing the real purpose of Jesus’ life, the giving up of his life for our sake, it is in seeing how Jesus breathed his last, that he saw and believed.
“...he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”
Seeing the extent of God’s love for His people; the giving up of His own Son’s life for our sake
compels the centurion to break his silence and become the first proclaimer of Jesus as the Son of God. He goes even further than Peter. Who, when Jesus asks who the people say he is in chapter 8, declares Jesus to be the Messiah, the one sent by God to deliver the people from bondage, but stops short of declaring him to be the Son of God.
This Holy Week, reflect on the centurion and his words. And see yourself in him. Like the centurion, all of us put Christ on his Cross by our sins. Let us follow his example and keep our lives oriented towards Christ and let us do away with anything that turns us away from him. Let us recognize all that Christ has given for us: the entirety of his life unto death. And let us be brave enough to respond to Christ’s life and death for our sake by declaring him to be the Son of God, the master of our lives, and everything that we live and die for.