Corpus at the Cross

Corpus at the Cross March 30, 2018

Psalm 22 provides much of the background for the crucifixion of Jesus. It begins with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me,” the words of Jesus from the cross. “Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not hear. And in the night season, and season, and am not silent.”

David doesn’t stay in that state of isolation, fear, distance, and despair. The Psalm begins “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but it ends in praise: “I will declare Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” It ends with the hope that “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,” and that even “those who go down to the dust shall bow before” Yahweh.

Psalm 22 not only provides a few lines and specific predictions of the crucifixion, but provides the whole story-line, because Jesus’ crucifixion also moves from isolation, anguish, and despair to hope and confidence. My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? Jesus cries from the cross, but when He cries again His God answers by shaking the earth, by opening the tombs, by bringing the bodies of the saints out and sending them to the holy city. Jesus death too moves from humiliation to exaltation. Before He is brought down from the cross, His triumph is already evident.

The Psalm has a corporate dimension. David begins alone, attacked by enemies, but ends with brothers and friends gathered around Him. In the Psalm, Yahweh extracts David from one community and places Him in another. In his suffering, David is surrounded by beasts. “Many bulls have surrounded Me; strong bulls of Bashan have encircled Me. They gape at Me with their mouths, like a raging and roaring lion” (vv. 13-14). “For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me.  They pierced My hands and My feet” (v. 16).

David’s prayer is that he would be delivered from these beasts: “But You, O LORD, do not be far from Me; O My Strength, hasten to help Me! Deliver Me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog. Save Me from the lion’s mouth and from the horns of the wild oxen!” (vv. 19-21).

Yahweh hears the king’s prayer, and as soon as He answers, David is surrounded by a different crowd. “You have answered Me,” he says, and immediately “I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you” (vv. 21-22). He is surrounded by those who fear Yahweh, by the seed of Jacob; He praises Yahweh in the “great assembly” among “those who seek” the Lord. Yahweh takes David from the beasts that want to devour Him and places him in the company of the faithful. He is delivered from the zoo and brought into a liturgical gathering.

This is precisely what happens to Jesus. During His trial and sufferings, Jesus is surrounded by raging Jewish leaders, the mob clamoring for a cross, scornful Roman soldiers, by jabbering and gibbering and jeering. At His death that changes. Jesus has been surrounded by priestly bulls and Gentile dogs, but when He dies He is immediately surrounded by the faithful. He is immediately put into an assembly of the seed of Jacob, the assembly of brothers.

But these are not the brothers that one would expect. This is not the assembly that we’ve seen around Jesus throughout the gospel. Early in the gospel, Jesus chose the Twelve to be with Him. The Twelve were the inner circle when He gave the Sermon on the Mount. The Twelve were the ones that He sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The Twelve were the ones who heard Him talk about the destruction of the temple. The Twelve have been witnesses of His miracles; they have been His closest students; they have participated in His ministry of preaching, healing, exorcism.

But they’ve been gone since the Garden of Gethsemane. They fled instead of suffering alongside Jesus in His trials and death. And when Jesus dies, they don’t immediately materialize. Eventually, they will be restored to Jesus’ inner circle, will receive the great commission, and will go off to fulfill that commission. For now, they are still absent.

Instead, the congregation of “brothers” and “those who fear God” that surrounds Jesus at His death includes a Roman centurion and his cohort of Gentile solders. It includes women who have followed Jesus from Galilee. It includes Joseph of Arimathea, identified as a “disciple” but, as John tells us, a “secret disciple for fear of the Jews,” a disciple who has listened to and followed Jesus at a great distance.

None of these have been apparent before Jesus’ death. They have been in the background, or hidden, or actively opposed to Jesus. By His death, Jesus brings things out into the open – dead bodies, Gentile believers, Sanhedrin members who are secret followers, women disciples. His death is an apocalypse, an unveiling of the secret society of disciples, an unveiling of the hidden body of Christ.

Women become especially prominent at the cross and the tomb. Women have been in the background of Matthew’s gospel (14:21; 15:38; but cf. 9:20-22; 15:21-28; 26:6-13), but now they come to the forefront. Through most of the gospel, we haven’t heard about these women at all. We know that there have been crowds following Jesus in Galilee and from Galilee, and we know from a couple of references that there were women in the crowds.

When Matthew has mentioned women before, they have been almost an afterthought. He calculates the number of men fed in the wilderness at 5000, and then adds, as an afterthought, “besides women and children.” The women are associated with the children, off to the side, on the margins. In the inner circle are the Twelve, then the 5000 men, and later the 4000 men, whom Jesus feeds, and then out on the outer edges of the crowd are women and children.

Though virtually invisible in the gospel, the women do what disciples are supposed to do. As Matthew says, they have been “following” Jesus from Galilee, all the way to the cross. They’ve followed Jesus further than the Twelve. After Jesus is buried, they still follow Him, sitting opposite the tomb (v. 61). They follow Jesus all the way to the grave, and are there again on the day after the Sabbath to hear the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection from the angel. They pass through His entire Passion with Jesus.

While they follow Jesus, they have been serving Him. Importantly, the mother of the sons of Zebedee is among them. The first time we met her in the gospel story, she was asking Jesus to give her sons prominent positions in His kingdom. At that time, Jesus said that they would instead have to suffer with Him and Jesus emphasized that the “great” in the kingdom would not be lords but servants: “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (20:26-27). The sons of Zebedee are not there at the cross, but their mother is, among the women who have done what Jesus said, who have “served” Jesus while following Him.

Even the earlier references to the women, the ones that seem to be demeaning, are in fact complimentary. The women are almost invisible in the earlier part of the story. They’re in the background with the children. But Jesus has told His disciples to become like children. At one point, he pulled a child from the back and set him in front of the disciples, saying: “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:3-4). And later “Let the children alone . . . for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (19:14).

That the women are with the children shows that they are where all disciples should be, not proudly putting themselves forward but humbly serving. Jesus came to renew Israel, to form a new Israel in which there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. At His death, He begins to do just that. He brings forward the women as model disciples.

Two of the women are named “Mary.” One is Mary Magdalene, who suddenly appears here for the first time in the gospel. There is another Mary, identified as the “mother of James and Joseph.” Earlier in the gospel, people marvel at Jesus’ teaching and ask, “Is not his mother called Mary, and his brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas” (13:55).

I think the “other Mary” in Matthew 27-28 is Mary the mother of Jesus. Even if that’s not the case, the name Mary appears twice, and the name Joseph twice – Joseph the son of Mary and Joseph of Arimathea. That immediately puts us back to the early part of the gospel, where the names Mary and Joseph are used repeatedly.

The names take us back to the birth narrative of Jesus, and if the “other Mary” is indeed Jesus’ mother, the association between death and birth is even stronger. Mary, who bore Jesus in her womb, is there with Jesus at the tomb. She is there because this tomb is going to become a womb, as Jesus will emerge as the “firstborn of the dead” on the third day. It is a new tomb, a virgin tomb. Once Jesus the Seed of Abraham is planted in it, He will burst out and produce much fruit.

The women watch the cross from a distance. When Jesus is buried, they sit opposite the grave, and they return to the tomb on the first day of the week. They watch, as the soldiers did at the cross, but they are also waiting, perhaps knowing that Jesus promised to come back on the third day. They form the nucleus of the new community established by the death of Jesus, the new body emerging from a hidden place, unveiled by the cross.

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