172. The Centurion at the Foot of the Cross

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” [Mark 15:39, NRSV]

The Confession of the Centurion, by James Tissot, c. 1890.

In addition to the soldier lancing Jesus’ side, we wanted to speak on the confession of the centurion at the foot of the cross. That confession of Jesus as the Son of God is stunning to say the least.

The evangelist Mark, by a stroke of compositional brilliance, shocks his readers by launching his narrative with “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” in the opening verse. In the middle of his narrative, he has Jesus asking the central question: “Who do you say that I am?” In the end, it is a centurion who brings Mark’s entire account full circle by affirming Jesus’ identity as “Son of God”.

The centurion’s confession is stunning not least because it was made by a non-Jew and a non-disciple. Coming from the mouth of a Roman soldier, it had the singular distinction of being in sharp contrast to the very charge of blasphemy viciously preferred by the religious leaders of the day which set the whole movement of Jesus’ passion-narrative in motion.

Theologically, the centurion’s confession is as complicating as it is interesting and challenging, for it happened before the Resurrection (upon which Christianity’s essential Easter-faith is rooted), and long before Pentecost (from whence the power of the Holy Spirit drove the early disciples to embark on Christian evangelization). Furthermore, the visual at the foot of the cross, one must remember, was nothing but an ugly and violent crucifixion and a most painful and humiliating death. And yet, despite this most harrowing scene at Calvary, the centurion, of all people, made a faith-confession. One can sense how stunning the centurion’s confession can be to anyone who cares to pause and meditate on it deeply enough.

Before anything else, one must take serious note that however important the events of the Holy Week are, our theological vision, and our spirituality, must never be confined to a three-day (Triduum) theology. Instead, our theological understanding of what Christ did for us must embrace the whole gospel. For the centurion did not come to his faith-confession merely on account of what he saw in how Jesus died, but more importantly, in how Jesus lived that led to how he died.

What, then, did the centurion “see”?

“Seeing,” we must know, is not just a simple visual act. To “see” and comprehend something deeply, three different acts are involved.

  • A physical act takes in the visual aspects of persons, things and events that are available to the senses.
  • Then, a further mental act organizes and evaluates in terms of categories, such as social behavioural groups.
  • Finally, a spiritual act digs deeper into the spiritual nature of the people and the events that are unfolding or have unfolded. By this stage, the person will have travelled from the eyes, through the mind, to the heart and soul.

At the apex of it all, the person will have “seen” people and events in relation to the Source of all, the Triune God, and in communion with all of creation. The “seer” will be able to judge social interactions and perceive any oppressiveness.

At the physical level, all that the centurion saw at Calvary was a gruesome crucifixion and a humiliating death. The best pictorial representation of this that we know of is the 1510 masterpiece Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald, in part of what is known as the Isenheim Altarpiece.

More important than a physical vision, is the journey towards a spiritual insight. In summary fashion, we propose five over-arching categories of insight through which the centurion traversed that finally yielded him the spiritual insight in his confession.

  1. Jesus was a great teacher and a great spiritual figure

Jesus was known as a man of prayers. The centurion, stationed in Jerusalem, has heard that a fellow-centurion of his stationed in Galilee had his servant healed by Jesus “from across a distant”, for Jesus could work great miracles. But Jesus, so he heard, was also known and loved for his compassion and mercy, keeping company with the Poor and the maginalised.

A great teacher and a great spiritual guru, Jesus’ reputation preceded him as one who was hugely popular, with great crowds following him everywhere he went.

  1. Jesus was a humble and weeping “king”

On the Mount of Olives, Jesus looked across the Kidron Valley and saw the Temple Mount and Jerusalem, and he wept. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, the city of “peace” that knew no peace and would not welcome the Prince of Peace. Jesus wept over human sins. This must have troubled the centurion who also saw and heard the crowds proclaiming him “king” at his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. All the city was stirred, as whole multitude rejoiced and praised God loudly, shouting “Hosanna”. It was like their victory cry. The centurion, naturally, saw that the religious leaders were furious about all this.

Philip Yancey sums up what the centurion saw:

  • “In Jesus’ triumphal entry, the adoring crowd makes up the ragtag procession: the lame, the blind, the children, the peasants from Galilee and Bethany. When the officer looks for the object of their attention he spies a forlorn figure, weeping, riding on no stallion or chariot but on the back of a baby donkey, a borrowed coat draped across its backbone serving as his saddle.”
  1. Jesus was vehemently pro-God and pro-people

In cleansing the Temple, Jesus said vehemently for and on behalf of God:

  • “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).

There, the centurion “saw” Jesus’ holy anger and understood that Jesus desired true worship, not power or money. Now, that is spiritual insight.

  1. Jesus portrayed deep nobility and dignity

Jesus held his silence while his enemies hurled accusations and insults at him. Under severe torture and humiliation, Jesus never cursed or             hit back. The centurion saw gentle grace and dignified majesty.

He saw Pilate repeatedly declare Jesus innocent. He saw Pilate’s ill conscience in washing hands. He saw that truth would never disappear but would stay within one’s heart. But, the incited mob wanted Barabbas released, not Jesus, and the Chief priests demanded, “Crucify him!…” The truth of the matter is, the cheering stopped because of crowd manipulation, as the mood turned vicious because of toxic envy [Mk 15:10].

The Centurion “saw” the true agenda of the religious leaders, as the “chief priests and the scribes” plotted to put Jesus to death (Lk 22:2). He saw the push of propaganda just like what we saw George Bush did on Iraq, as his administration systematically put out “fake news”.

In the face of all this, the centurion “saw” and was moved by the nobility and dignity of Jesus.

  1. Jesus was indeed a noble and dignified “Son of God”

At the via dolorosa, the centurion saw how Simon of Cyrene began reluctantly when forced to help the exhausted Jesus carry the cross, but ended up converted to Jesus. He saw that Jesus did not give up, falling many times under the weight of the cross and repeatedly struggling to get up to continue the journey. As the women were wailing, the centurion saw a wholly innocent man suffering an excruciating and humiliating end, and his poor mother had to witness it all. Still, the religious leaders and their incited-mob who clamoured for Jesus’ death at Pilate’s court did not and would not stop jeering at his ignominious end.

Finally, at Calvary, the centurion saw the noble way Jesus suffered – his inner dignity could not be taken away from him. In the depth of suffering and desolation, he never lost the image of God – still forgiving his torturers, and still praying for them.

In Jesus’ final surrender – “It is finished” – he saw that Jesus, to the very end, was on a mission from God! The centurion had never seen such a holy man. He had never seen a man die like this. Jesus’ death was unlike any other crucifixion.

And then, he experienced three full hours of supernatural darkness, followed by an earthquake at the very moment of Jesus’ death. Even the veil in the Temple was torn, from top to bottom, manifesting God’s hands in tearing up earthly sanctuaries and putting in place, through the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ, a new and living way. Jesus indeed must be “Son of God”!

Pope Benedict XVI in the second volume of his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, subtitled Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, made an important link from the centurion’s confession of faith to the Church:

  • “At the foot of the cross, the Church of the Gentiles comes into being. Through the Cross, the Lord gathers people together to form the new community of the worldwide Church. Through the suffering Son, they recognise the true God.” [p.224]

Something must have gone on “inside” the centurion. He encountered the dynamics of an “inner struggle” (an “inner apologetic”). There is something in each human being that reaches out for God, and that reaching instinct comes from God and leads to God (who made our hearts for Him). In today’s violent and grabbing society, and an unpredictable new American president Donald Trump, deep down, we live in fearful times when peace is what each one of us is yearning for. So the centurion realised that gross injustice had been done to Jesus as “victim”.

  • Jesus was made a scapegoat by the religious authority – “better for one man to die…” – but, Jesus who insisted on the way of peace and non-violence, forgiveness and mercy, was an innocent victim who exposed their religious fraud, and showed humanity the way forward to live the Kingdom-values of God.

From first to last, Jesus was about the Kingdom. From one mountain (Sermon on the Mount) to the other (Calvary), he preached and lived the kingdom-message to the full, showing us that this evangelical-message is do-able, live-able, achieve-able. He has shown the way. He told us to do the same in memory of him.

There is a moving on-the-set story about Ernest Borgnini who played the role of the Centurion in Franco Zefferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”. The famous actor was weeping so much that he held up the shooting of the movie many times. Asked why he wept so much, he answered: “You simply cannot come close to Jesus without being changed.” Perhaps that was what happened to the centurion in Mark 15:39?

For reflections towards Christian living, we lightly touched on two questions.

First, what does it mean to be baptised?

  • Baptism means many things to different people. But, first and foremost, baptism is, for us, a change of identity and all that it entails. At baptism, we change from a membership of a community that adheres to a different faith or to no faith, to a community that adheres to a faith in Jesus as the Christ and all that it entails.
  • Often, however, we have largely lost sight of the depth-significance of that identity-change until, perhaps, when we hear the gut-wrenching stories of converts from communities of radical Islam. A convert in such a community to Christianity literally risks being put to death, even by his or her own family members. For him or her, to go forward to be baptized is to risk being killed.
  • Baptism, therefore, goes beyond what sacramental theology tells us in beautiful and painless symbolic words, namely, as we are immersed in the water of baptism, we die with Christ, so that as we rise from the water, we rise with him a new creation in the resurrection. But when Jesus died, he died shedding blood and all the rest of the horrific suffering. The challenging question is how might we, in the concrete circumstances in which we each find ourselves, who are baptised in Jesus’ name, learn to “shed blood” and “die” with Jesus in living out our discipleship?

Second, what is Christianity?

  • Christianity means many things to different people. But, first and foremost, Christianity is a story and a practice, rather than a Sunday liturgy, a doctrine or a law. It is the story of Jesus of Nazareth and a life-practice that follows his way.
  • For Pope Francis, to be a Christian is to be converted to Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the Gospels rather than in the Code of Canon Law or the doctrinal tradition of the Church, ad to live like Jesus as a son or a daughter of God.
  • This is where understanding the designation “Son of God” in its biblical context is helpful. Christians tend to understand the term “Son of God” first and foremost as reflecting the belief that Jesus is “begotten of the Father”, “sharer in God’s own divine nature”, or “consubstantial with the Father”. But such an understanding flows more from the pronouncements of the councils (notably iNicea and Chalcedon) during the early christological crisis. Those pronouncements were based more on the 4th century philosophical-theological reflections than on the first century biblical-theological understanding. According to biblical usage, the term “Son of God” means “chosen one” and “faithful one”. And so, at his baptism, when Jesus heard the heavenly voice telling him: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11), the words for him would have resonated with the Isaian Servant Song, so that he could see himself as the suffering and faithful servant of God and in that role, beloved by Him. Thus, in all things, Jesus would singularly focus on working for kingdom-advancement. So, too, he would not just take (be served), but he would give (serve) and make sacrifices (“shed blood”). To follow Jesus is to learn to do the same – to serve, to give, to shed blood.

From John Newton (1725-1807), we drew out two stanzas of his composition “He Died For Me”:

  • I saw one hanging on a tree
    In agony and blood;
    He fixed His [pain filled] eyes on me
    As near His cross I stood.
  • A second look He gave, which said,
    “I freely all forgive:
    This blood was for thy ransom paid;
     I die that thou mayest live.”

But how might we live as true disciples in memory of him who died for us?  The Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman offers a helpful guide:

  • God has created me to do him some definite service;

he has committed some work to me

which he has not committed to another.

  • I have my mission

I have a part in a great work;

I am a link in a chain,

a bond of connection between persons…”

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, March 2017. All rights reserved.

You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to jeffangiegoh@gmail.com. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.