And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 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 15:37-39
If God can tear the veil in the temple, he can rend a soldier’s understanding of a dying Jesus. That is, if God can split open Jewish sacred space, then a Roman’s heart and mind can be opened to see God’s world.
Mark tells us that a lone Roman Centurion spied the workings of God. Far from blinding him, the Cross became the paradigm for seeing. And that is one of the ironies of the whole event. It is a dumbfounding twist, and partly causes us to recoil, “No, it can’t be true that the soldier knew or meant what he said… the meaning of the confession is to be found elsewhere…”
But the soldier saw God working where God was most active. The sad irony is that nobody else saw it. We read Mark and we get it, why didn’t everyone else standing around? Indeed:
Where God was most revealed he was most concealed.
For the ones who were supposed to see him (his people) there was blindness. When we get to Mark 15, the story turns, and unexpectedly it is the bit-player who sees, even while the privileged characters miss the whole point. Marks’s gospel is about seeing.
God tears a veil and access is opened up to a new chapter in the life of God among humanity, and the first to take a step towards this is a Roman who sees God working.
This makes sense of the narrative, not because it is Mark’s narrative, but because it is the fingerprint of God. That is, God works where people don’t expect to find him working, and that’s why the cross is blinding and why God is most hidden where he is plainly visible. God showed up and his own people couldn’t see him. That’s really odd.
Perhaps this really odd thing is still true. Perhaps the text does not fit our ideas of what is appropriate to the plot of God, and when that happens we find that we don’t have a category for all of this stuff actually being true and really happening (or at least that, “the Roman soldier didn’t really get it”).
The danger here is that we won’t find God doing what he wants to do, and we will protect him from him with a safe retreat to the form of the story, the idea of the plot, the turn of narrative, the devices of the author, and all the rest. We will find in Mark a narrative theory that has us left saying that the Roman soldier didn’t mean what he said, but that he spoke with irony (or something else of that sort). In reality, we just saw God tear the fabric of what a Roman knew best. The soldier knows that Caesar is the Son of God. So God rips that idea. And it all happens at the Cross, the place where Rome’s ability to banish life is most visible. Caesar, the world’s version of Son of God, had the cross as his emblem even as it was an implement of his power. So God picks that spot to reveal himself to a Roman. At the cross, the power to kill gets turned into the great display of who God is.
Jesus is the revelation of God being God, and he picked the place where the greatest human, Caesar, was most feared. God chose man’s ability to kill as the place to undo the corrupt way of being a great and feared human.
I would suggest that the shock value goes up if we understand that this Roman soldier really did get it. That is, there is a divine beam of light that got through into darkness. He was not blinded by the cross, but saw through to what was going on. That is shocking when so much unbelief surrounds the event. It is shocking because the cross would be the last place to discover that Caesar was actually losing his power — after all, the cross was the convincing assertion of his authority. Yet, in that exact unlikely place, another power was being made known. Jesus could not be the Son of God according to the calculus of Rome. So God was showing that the fallen way of reckoning was all wrong. And God used the wrong person to point it out: he used a Roman. God’s wisdom is foolishness to those who are perishing, and he uses every opportunity to communicate his upside-down reckoning.
Demons in the Gospel of Mark know who Jesus is. And a Roman soldier who is watching him die knows who he is. This is not the place one expects to find insight into the working of God. All the ones who were in the know turned out to be in the dark, and the ones who were definitely not supposed to get it (they aren’t even supposed to be a focal point in a story about God), got it. Of course, for the demons it was ruinous for Jesus to come, but they did understand that warfare was afoot. For the demons, it was not a happy revelation, but for the soldier, it was glorious.
None of this is expressly to be attributed to Irony in the Gospel of Mark, per se, but it is Irony of God being God. For where God is most revealed he is most concealed; it is his calling card. Where he is most on display (on the Cross), he is most hidden. And it turns out that the one who is not a part of the people of God (a non Jew), spots God and identifies the King of the Jews.
That the soldier actually gets it (and means what he says about Jesus being the Son of God) is not a problem, it is how God works. But some commentators are baffled by it and suppose that Mark is using the episode as a literary device. I suggest we should be careful here, for in so doing, we may rob the story of one of its climactic elements.
The story works just fine with God working where we don’t expect him: First on a Cross, second in a Roman soldier. It’s all backwards, and we know it, and we run from it. We are like the characters in the story who are standing around the cross. It is right in front of us, and the obvious revelation of God is too blinding, so we miss the point.
Eastside Church of the Cross