This is Love: The Death of Jesus

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”  Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.  Mark 15:33-41

After typing the scripture above, I’ve found myself sitting quietly for a few minutes taking it all in. There is too much in this passage to do all of it justice in one blog post. As I think through the four signs that Pastor John highlighted from this passage (Eschatological, Christological, Revelational, and Redemptive), and the words in the passage itself, I keep coming back to “darkness covered the whole land”. What must that have been like–three hours of darkness in the middle of the day? For those at the crucifixion, and for those at home completely unaware that a significant execution was taking place, what was going through their minds? Was it like heavy cloud cover, or did if feel more supernatural in nature? Was it scary?

I recently finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark. There were a lot of things that I treasured in that book, but the point she made that I keep finding myself coming back to is the stark difference between what she calls “Solar Christians” and “Lunar Christians”. I’m going to be paraphrase here and interject my own interpretations of what she wrote, but she said Solar Christians are afraid of the dark. They try to avoid it at all costs, they interpret dark as “bad”, and try to either ignore it or explain it away using spiritual terms. Lunar Christians, on the other hand, embrace cycles in life, including the dark ones, realizing that just like the moon has cycles, so do our lives. Some seasons are bright, like the full moon, some dark, like the new moon, and others that happen in between those extremes. Taylor also pointed out, (and this blew my mind), that the new moon phase (when there is no moon in the sky) lasts for three nights, and then light begins to appear. She equated that to a constant cycle of death and resurrection. I had never heard that before. I looked it up and learned that depending upon one’s location in relationship to the horizon, sure enough, there are three moonless nights. Three nights when we can’t see the moon reflecting the sun’s light. Three–what a significant number. And on the fourth night light begins to appear. Death. Resurrection. Every month.

We don’t always know what to do with the dark. It doesn’t feel safe. But just as God is in the light, God is in the dark. God is never absent–including that dark day when Jesus hung on the cross.

There is an interpretation of these events, especially when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that teaches God abandoned Jesus in this moment of his deepest need. It goes something like this: God can’t look on our sin, so as Jesus bore our sin on the cross, God had to turn away. There are two problems with this interpretation. 1: Jesus is God. 2: It’s absolutely inconsistent with the character of God that we see throughout scripture.

What was God’s response when Adam sinned and hid from Him? God sought Adam out. When Cain killed his brother, God showed up and even put a mark on Cain to protect him from harm. In the New Testament, Jesus was in trouble with the religious leaders all the time because he hung out with “sinners”. The father of the prodigal son ran to his son, embraced him and threw a party. Romans 5:8 tells us that God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Amp). God is not distant from our stories, from our weaknesses, from our sin. He meets us in the middle of our mess and says “I love you.” His very nature and character is love. Always. 

So if God did not abandon Jesus on the cross, why did Jesus say that?

When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”,  Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22–a psalm which truly mirrors all that was happening as he hung on the cross. (I encourage you to read it in its entirety)  As with many of the Psalms, the Psalmist wrote what he was feeling, and then wrote what was true.  The Psalm begins with “My God…why have you forsaken me?”,  and goes on to express other feelings of being abandoned, forgotten, unheard. Then in verse 9 the little word “yet” appears and the Psalmist reminds himself of what is true:

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 
The Psalmist cycles back into what he is feeling and experiencing until verse 19, where the word “but” appears, and he again declares what is true:
But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me… 
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the LORD will praise him—may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 
for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. 
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. 
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (19, 22-31)
Jesus cried out the first line, but had no strength or breath left to finish the Psalm; he died shortly after he gasped out those words, but it was enough. It was enough for those in the crowd who knew the Hebrew scriptures to know what he was saying. Without a doubt the religious leaders who were present knew that Psalm. Could Jesus have once again been inviting them in?
Was the crucifixion dark? Absolutely. I can’t imagine what Jesus was experiencing, what  his followers were experiencing. The women who showed up, who loved Jesus dearly—what was going through their minds? The disciples who ran, hid, feared–what was going through their minds? They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming. All they knew in that moment was darkness–physical darkness, spiritual darkness, and emotional darkness.
Darkness. In the Genesis 1 creation account, darkness was present. God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
In Isaiah 45:3 we read:
I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.
In the Passover account recorded in the book of Exodus, God’s salvation happens during a dark, scary night. In Matthew 24 when Jesus talks about the end of time, he says that after the sun goes dark, then will appear the sign of the Son of Man (v. 30) . 
And on that day, that crucifixion day, while the sun was hidden for three hours, God’s love and presence were on full display in the dark.
I don’t love dark seasons, but in my darkest seasons, I’ve learned that God is present in a different way. In my solar seasons, I see him and his glory in everything around me, and it’s easy to be awestruck by him. In the dark, I don’t see as well, yet he is there. He shows up. He sits with me. He grieves with me. He hurts with me. He suffers with me. He loves me. He transforms me. There are treasures in the dark. There are riches in the dark. God is there, in the dark. And when the dark season ends, I know Him better than I did before. As I type these last words, the sky is just beginning to indicate that dawn is on the way…dark, light, death, resurrection, seasons, cycles– our forever loving God is with us in them all.
–Luanne
Darkness. 
What comes to your mind as you read that word?
My thoughts circle around what occurred in our home last night. One of my sons was up several times, scared with no solid explanation of why. This is not an unusual occurrence in our home. This boy of mine has always hated the dark. He used to have nightmares that would lead to him screaming in his sleep and waking up only partially, then not remembering the event at all when morning came. Over time, he has come to expect to be afraid at night. He tries to fall asleep before the rest of us, because if he is the last person awake in our home, fear overtakes him. He is most afraid of being alone. 
Last night was no different. The only part of his fear that he can put words to is the fear of being alone. I don’t know why this makes him afraid, but to him, it’s very real. In the middle of the night, to him, it is his truest reality. His stomach contorts in pain, his heart races. He has tools, things we’ve taught him to help him get through the overwhelming fear, but in the dark, he feels powerless to overcome what he is most afraid of. He has become accustomed to the presence of fear when darkness falls. And he has been, by the voice of his own fear, conditioned to believe lies about what darkness means.
So have we.
Luanne wrote:
“God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
They both have their place and their purpose. Both. Not one or the other. Both. We humans struggle with “both”. We live in an either/or, right/wrong, good/evil, dualistic culture. This makes faith more than a little difficult… Because faith, to qualify as faith, includes believing in what we can’t see. Yet, we’ve attempted (‘we’ being all of us, the whole of humanity, especially those who would identify as followers of Jesus) to explain the unexplainable, to define the mystery, to understand what is beyond our minds’ capacities, and to fit it all into a neat, tidy box. We’ve sealed the box so that nothing old can get out and nothing new can get in. The box is marked with words like “truth”, “right”, “perfect”, “inerrant” and it’s contents include rules and laws built upon the interpretation and understanding of those who constructed the box. One thing that made it into the box is light. One thing that didn’t is darkness.
Our theology of darkness is a lot like my son’s fear of it. We have been conditioned to believe certain things about it, what it represents, why we should fear it. We have learned to think of it as the opposite of light rather than the companion of light. A dance partner, if you will. Light’s perfect pairing. Instead of seeing the place and purpose of each, we’ve labeled one good and one bad. One safe and one dangerous. One represents God, and one represents evil.
Like my son, I was afraid of the dark as a child. In fact, I was afraid into even into early adulthood. As I grew in my understanding, though–and began to heal from childhood wounds–my fears dissipated. I am no longer afraid of the dark, and in fact rather enjoy sitting in the dark now, because it allows me to see differently than I do in the light.
I am afraid that our theology of darkness, as a whole, has not grown from our first, childish understanding. Our either/or, good/bad mindset kept darkness out of our box and launched us into what Luanne wrote about above–solar Christianity. We’ve lived “in the light”, and it has cost us.
In the gorgeous book Luanne referenced, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words:
“From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today…At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention…”
If we have never learned how to see in the dark, we will live inside our box of light and miss all that darkness has to offer. We can choose this–and be completely and totally loved and held by God, in our ignorance and unconsciousness. God doesn’t require that we make room within our theological boxes for darkness in order to accept us or love us fully. He doesn’t have a checklist through which we can earn his love. He just loves. Because he is love. We get to be exactly where we are and we can be fully guaranteed that the heart of God is full of love toward us.
But–what if there is so much more to God, to life, to our own journeys, than what can fit inside that box? What if there are vast expanses to explore, adventures beyond our wildest imaginations–if we would just get out of the box?
Outside the safety of our illuminated boxes, though, we will encounter the darkness. It’s why so many of us just can’t bear the thought of even lifting the lid, let alone climbing out. Everything we’ve learned, all that we’ve been conditioned to believe, things we regard as absolute truth–all of it comes into question when we step outside of our boxes. And rather than being excited or even curious about what we might find, our default response is almost always fear. Of the unknown, of being wrong, of being disappointed, of sliding down a slippery slope into oblivion… So rather than lift the lid, we often reinforce it instead. We lock it down and set guards around it so we can keep out anything that might challenge our belief about what’s inside. As long as we don’t actually encounter it, we can think what we choose to think, what we’ve learned to think. And that feels safe…
Until the darkness somehow gets in. Until it crashes in around us and we either have to face it, or run the other way. If we have the courage to face it, to stop seeing it as the enemy, but rather an opportunity to experience God anew, we’ll see things we’ve never seen before. Our right/wrong, us/them, either/or ways of seeing the world will begin to fall away, and the ability to see with a both/and perspective will begin to grow. We’ll begin to see the beauty of mystery and learn to be more at peace with our partial understanding. We’ll begin to see beyond the surface of things, beyond how they appear.
I’ve strayed a long way from the message we heard on Sunday… I didn’t know my words would walk me in this direction today. But I’m grateful I was led here. Because when I sat down to write, I had no idea where I was going. I read over my notes, studied multiple scriptures, looked up some Greek words. I read no less than six or seven different articles and commentaries related to this week’s passage. For three hours. I was up at 4:30 a.m. today, hoping to have this written and published by 6:00. Instead, I found myself drowning in opinions framed as certitudes, fear–and shame–based theology, and assumptions presented as facts. All were sure of their rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. It was a showcase of dualism. Not one of the authors I came across was willing to admit that there could be other correct interpretations, other ways of seeing. Not one admitted that sometimes there is no black and white explanation or that we can’t always understand the ways of God. All of their explanations fit nicely into the safe box.
I was exhausted and frustrated before I typed my first word. My morning had been full of prayers for direction, guidance about what to write. And I stopped again to pray–with a heavy sigh–for inspiration from the Spirit. It was at that point, three hours in, that I thought about my boy and his aversion to the dark. How he’s learning to navigate the rugged terrain of his own fear, and how his beliefs about the dark aren’t yet well-informed, but he’s getting there. Right now, he equates darkness with what scares him most. Eventually, I hope he’ll move from this understanding to one that allows him to befriend the dark, to find peace in the quiet of being alone with his thoughts. But that day is not today.
I can’t help but think about the darkness that Luanne wrote about, the darkness that crashed in around the cross during the crucifixion of Jesus. For whatever reason, I had always pictured the darkness happening as Jesus breathed his last. That as he died, the skies went dark and the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. But according to Matthew, Mark and Luke and their accounts, that’s not how it happened. Darkness fell while Jesus hung, alive, on the cross. In the middle of the day, darkness came and obscured what those present could see. I wonder how dark the darkness was? Could the women who were there still see Jesus in front of them? He was still with them physically, yet their ability to see him was diminished in the dark. I wonder if they felt alone in the dark, the way that my son does… Jesus was very much with them, but could they sense his presence in the dark?
Three hours later, the darkness broke. Light returned. The scene was illuminated once again in the light of day. And it’s here, in the light, that Jesus cried out and breathed his last. He died in the light. The eyes of all around him witnessed his last moments in broad daylight. Why did I always assume Jesus took his last breath as darkness fell? Because, I think, for as long as I can remember, I’ve associated darkness with death. And life with light. We know that faith is confidence in what we cannot see, yet we live according to what we can see.
They watched Jesus give up his life in the middle of the day. They saw that he was gone. Their light became as darkness to them because, as Luanne wrote, “They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming.” 
What we now know… What do we now know? Do we know that God’s presence never left Jesus–or anyone else–alone on that dark day? Do we know that his presence is with us now, on the other side of resurrection, on our darkest days the same as our brightest? Pastor John asked us a question on Sunday, one that we do have to answer, each of us for ourselves. He asked us, “Who do you believe Jesus is?” But after spending time here, reading Luanne’s words and writing my own, I think there is a second question we need to ask ourselves…
Where do you believe Jesus is?
Does your Jesus only exist in the light? Do you have a “darkness” closet where you store all that doesn’t align with “solar Christianity”? How do you see the death of Jesus? What do you believe about the presence of God in those final moments before Jesus breathed his last? How we see matters. As Luanne wrote last week, “How we see is how we love.”
–Laura
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