Monday, April 06, 2009

A Meditation on the Centurion at the Foot of the Cross

A lot can be made, and a lot has been made, about the precise words of the centurion at the foot of the cross. The rub seems to be that there is no definite article in the greek, leading the NRSV to translate the centurion's saying as "truly this man was God's Son." Being Greek, the centurion probably didn't mean to say that "truly this is the Son of God," a phrase we might hear more comfortably. As he saw Jesus draw his last breath, and die on the cross, what the centurion probably meant according to Greek idiom, is something more like "wow, this guy is a real hero."

And after Jesus gives out his pathetic cry, and dies relatively quickly, it's even possible that the centurion says what he says with sarcasm. Sarcasm may well have been appropriate. This crucified, humiliated, and now dead man was nothing like he was made out to be. "This guy? You mean him? He's the King of Israel? Yeah right. Some hero."

But Mark has been careful to build his case for the divine sonship of Jesus, leading us to hear the centurion's sarcastic remark in a particular way. The first thing we hear in Mark's gospel is that what we are reading is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. At Jesus's baptism, when Jesus comes up out of the water and the Spirit descends upon him, a voice comes from heaven saying "you are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased." And then again, when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, a mysterious voice comes from the cloud and proclaims that "this is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"

Not only that, the spirits and demons knew him. Mark writes that as Jesus traveled, "whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, 'You are the Son of God!' " Later, when Jesus was met by the Gerasene Demoniac, the unclean spirit shouted out to him, "what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?"

So what do we make of this? Ought we to interpret the phrase as consistent with the proclamation of the divine voice, and the words of the demons? If this were true, then Mark, or later redactors, would certainly have supplied the definite article, making this utterance linguistically consistent with the others. That way we could glory in the sudden conversion of the centurion. But the phrase remains inconsistent with the others.

We can say with some confidence that the centurion meant to say something different than what we hear from the narrator, the voice from heaven, and from the mouthpieces of the demons. The phrase remains ambiguous, even if Mark's audience, and us too, will hear and interpret it as consistent with the rest of the gospel. Does this mean then, that what the centurion says any less true, even if he wasn't aware of the full meaning of what he was saying?

That would be to bark up the wrong tree entirely. Instead, the statement of the centurion can be heard both ways, and that this is intentional and significant.

Because of the centurion at the foot of the cross, proclaiming the divine sonship of Jesus with derision and sarcasm, we take away something important about the limits of our understanding and the nature of worship and proclamation. When we come to worship, and as we rehearse the divine life in the liturgy, we may well not, and probably don't, entirely understand what it is we're saying and doing. To place the whole burden of truth on our personal understanding – or lack thereof – is to misunderstand the nature worship and proclamation.

To place the whole burden of truth on our own personal understanding would be to to place an expectation upon our intellects that they will never live up to. It's certainly not a matter of leaving you mind at the door, but rather a recognition that we are always growing into something in worship, and that we are always growing into the fullness of the truth of God and Christ in the proclamations of the liturgy. It's a recognition that we never think alone, any more than do the secular humanists, philosophers, or cultural demagogues who also think within a particular tradition of discourse. The church thinks within the apostolic kerygma. We think with a church that proclaims Jesus as the Son of God, always growing into the fullness of what that means from time to time, and from age to age. If the proclamations of the liturgy were to rest entirely on the capabilities of our naked and bare intellect, we would exclude children; we would exclude anyone with cognitive disabilities; we would exclude me, as someone who hasn't grown as fully into the meaning of Holy Week as the widows in the parish of St. Mary Magdalene. There are many who have participated in Holy Week far more times than I have, and I'm quite sure that they are living and understanding it far more deeply than I am.

We can utter the truth without entirely understanding it, because our own understanding does not exhaust the truth of God, and the liturgy that strains and presses upon the limits of the individual intellect is a sign of the fullness of that truth. In our liturgical actions, our public reading of scripture, and in our recitation of creeds, we show and reveal something that is predicated on God's revelation of himself through the apostolic kerygma and embodied in the church at worship. The truth of our liturgical proclamations don't rest on our individual comprehension of them, but rather on God's revelation of himself in them, through the worshipping church that spans the centuries.

Alternatively, to reduce worship and liturgy, or the reading of scripture, or even the creedal dogmas to the limits of our own understanding would be to abandon our own growth into a story, and into the life of a God who is far larger than we can imagine. Ours is a God revealed in the particular actions of Jesus, in a particular time and place, and though he dies an ignominious death on a cross, remains the Son of the living God, and is revealed as such by way an ignorant soldier.

That we might comprehend the fullness of this.

"Truly this man was God's Son." In these words, even though they may be proclaimed in ignorance, and even as we strain to comprehend their meaning, we nevertheless find the fullness of truth.

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