And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”Mark 15:39 (ESV)
There’s something about the words of the centurion that I find both meaningful and mysterious. Typical of this Gospel, Mark fails to offer much in the way of detail—leaving us to fill in the gaps as to what the centurion meant. Undoubtedly, the centurion had seen much death throughout his career as a Roman soldier. Indeed, he was probably quite accustomed to death. So, what was it about this death, the death of—at least from the centurion’s perspective—a Jewish nobody, that caused him to proclaim Jesus as God’s Son? Regrettably, we’ll never know for sure. And perhaps it’s better this way. I think the beauty of Mark’s Gospel lies in its simplicity, which allows us to better place ourselves within the story. It’s what Mark doesn’t say that enthralls and excites our imaginations. By not overwhelming us with detail, Mark gives us a narrative gift—an opportunity to enter the story. We can imagine for ourselves what the centurion saw.
Before the centurion is a man who healed many, cared for others, and loved all. A man of humility and service dies because of men corrupted by power and hate. Perhaps what the centurion saw wasn’t the man being crucified but his own crucifixion—his own ambition, selfishness, and hatred nailed to the cross. Indeed, we could imagine that Jesus’ death revealed to the centurion his own corrupted nature—arrogant and power driven—sacrificed and transformed by grace into humility, forgiveness, and love. Thus, Jesus’ death revealed the failure of humanity to him. And yet, within this failure emerged hope. A hope that remakes us into the man the centurion saw on the cross. And like the centurion, once we see him we too can only exclaim, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.Mark 16:8 (ESV)
Mark concludes his Gospel with another fascinating, albeit unexpected, reaction. At the tomb, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are fearful, reacting with “trembling and astonishment.” It’s hard for us to understand why these women were afraid. And much like the centurion’s reaction, we’ll never know for sure what provoked them to react in such a manner. The centurion saw death and marveled, while these women received news of life and were afraid. Both react in ways we wouldn’t expect. Here again is an opportunity to insert ourselves into the story. In death there is closure and finality, but life requires decision and acting. Jesus’ death gave the hope of closure, while the resurrection returned that hope to us. And that hope is both astonishing and terrifying. We’ve been given this hope of renewal—of new life—but what will we do with it? Will we seize upon this hope and change ourselves through Christ? Or will we once again dash that hope by crucifying him once again? It’s here that Mark’s abrupt—and I believe liminal—ending mirrors the decisions the we must make both individually and collectively. What will we do with the news of life? How will we react to it? And like Mark’s Gospel, such decisions aren’t often clear. The centurion saw death and the women discovered life, but it’s up to us to live in hope.