DIVERSE PORTRAYALS OF THE CRUCIFIED JESUS
There are different accounts of the Passion and all emphasise different perspectives.
While there is only one Jesus, he is presented in different ways by the 4 evangelists.
Each one presents a different but not contradictory picture of him. This is particularly true in the way they paint their portraits of the crucified Jesus. Since Matthew differs only slightly from Mark in the passion narrative, I will confine myself to 3 different portraits: those of Mark, Luke and John. Let me describe those portraits briefly; to take each of them in detail would take several hours.
MARK portrays a stark abandonment of Jesus which is reversed by God in a dramatic way at the end. From the moment Jesus moves to the Mount of Olives, the behavior of the disciples is portrayed in a negative way. While Jesus prays, they fall asleep three times. Judas betrays him; Peter curses, denying that he ever knew of him. All flee, with the last one leaving even his clothes behind in order to get away from Jesus – the opposite of ‘leaving all things to follow him.’
Both Jewish and Roman judges are presented in a very uncomplimentary light. Jesus hangs on the cross for six hours, three of which are filled with mockery from the onlookers; in the 2nd three the land is covered with darkness. Jesus’ only word on the cross is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.?”. And even that plaintive cry from a dying man is met with derision.
Yet, as Jesus breathes his last, God acts to confirm His Son. The Trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin concerned Jesus’ threat to destroy the Temple and his claim to be the messianic Son of the Blessed One. At Jesus’ death the veil of the temple is rent, and a Roman centurion confesses, ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.” This, for Mark, proves that Jesus was not a false prophet.
LUKE’S portrayal is quite different.
The disciples appear in a more sympathetic light, for they have remained faithful to Jesus in his trials. In Gethsemane if they fall asleep (once not thrice) it is because of sorrow.
Even enemies fare better: no false witnesses are produced by the Jewish authorities; and three times Pilate acknowledges that Jesus is not guilty.
The people are on Jesus’ side, grieving over what has been done to him.
Jesus himself is less anguished by his fate than by his concern for others.
He heals the slave’s ear at the time of the arrest;
on the road to Calvary he worries about the fate of the women;
he forgives those who crucified him;
and he promises Paradise to the penitent ’thief’.
The crucifixion becomes the occasion of divine forgiveness and concern for others;
and Jesus dies in peace praying,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
JOHNS PASSION NARRATIVE presents a powerful Jesus who had earlier announced , “I lay down my life and I take it up again; no one takes it from me”.
When Roman soldiers and Jewish police come to arrest him, they fall to the earth; they are powerless as he speaks the divine phrase, “I AM”. In the garden he does not pray to be delivered from the hour of trial and death, as he does in the other Gospels; this ‘hour’ is the whole purpose of his life.
His self-assurance is an offence to the high priest;
Pilate’s position is challenged before the Jesus who states, “You have no power over me.” No Simon of Cyrene appears, for the Jesus in John’s gospel carries his own cross.
His royalty is proclaimed in 3 languages and confirmed by Pilate.
Unlike the portrayal in other Gospels, Jesus is not alone on Calvary, for at the foot of the cross stand the Beloved Disciple and the Mother of Jesus. He relates these two highly symbolic figures to each other as son and mother, thus leaving behind a family of believing disciples. He does not cry out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” because the Father is always with him.
Rather his final words are a solemn decision, “it is finished”; only when he has decided does he hand over his spirit. Even in death he dispenses life, as water flows from his body. His burial is not unprepared as in the other Gospels; rather, he lies amidst 45 kilos of spices as befits a king.
P. Which Version is the most accurate?
When these different PASSION NARRATIVEs are read side-by-side, one should not be upset by the contrast or ask which view of Jesus is more correct:
– the Jesus of MARK who plumbs the depths of abandonment only to be vindicated;
– the Jesus of LUKE who worries about others and gently dispenses forgiveness;
Or the Jesus of JOHN who reigns victoriously from the Cross in control of the events.
All three accounts are given to us by the Holy Spirit, and no one of them exhausts the meaning of Jesus. A true picture of the whole emerges only because the viewpoints are different.
In presenting two different views of the crucified every Holy Week, one on Passion Sunday and one on Good Friday, the church is bearing witness to that truth and making it possible for people with very different spiritual needs to find meaning in the cross.
There are moments in the lives of most Christians when they need to cry out with the Jesus of MARK / MATTHEW, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.?’ and to find, as Jesus did, that despite reasons to the contrary, God is really listening.
At other moments, they have found meaning in suffering by being able to say with the Jesus of LUKE, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” and being able to entrust themselves confidently to God’s hands.
There are still other moments where with Johannine faith we must see that suffering and evil have no real power over God’s Son or over those whom he enables to become God’s children.
To choose one portrayal of the crucified Jesus in a manner that would exclude the other portrayals or to try to harmonize all the Gospel portrayals into one would deprive the cross of much of its meaning.
It is important that ……
some people be able to see the head bowed in dejection,
while others observe the arms outstretched in forgiveness,
and others perceive in the title on the cross the proclamation of a reigning king.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you:
Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.