Divine Violence & Irony
There is an act of violence at the beginning of Mark’s gospel; not an act of violence performed by human hands, mind you, but an act of divine violence. The moment occurs at Jesus’ baptism where, as Mark narrates it, Jesus comes up out of the water and sees ‘…the heavens being torn open’ and the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove (Mark 1:10). Matthew and Luke describe the same moment (Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:21) but they use a Greek word that means opened, whereas Mark uses the Greek word schizomenous which means to tear.
Why is that important?
There is a subtle hint of an Old Testament text in this verse when Mark uses the word schizomenous. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew verb to tear is used only once in relation to the heavens (when Isaiah expresses his longing that Yahweh would ‘…rend [tear] the heavens and come down’, Isaiah 64:1), yet Mark seems to have picked up this subtle hint and used it in connection with Jesus’ baptism. Mark seems to be identifying Jesus’ baptism with the answer to Isaiah’s prayer that God would ‘come down’, and nudging us toward understanding that God has indeed come down in the person of Jesus. And just as Isaiah longed that God would finally enact the great salvation of Isaiah 40-55, so Mark wants us to see that in the person of Jesus this great salvation is finally taking place.
But Mark is not done yet with language of tearing and coming down.
When Mark describes Jesus’ crucifixion, he tells us that the passersby, the chief priests and scribes, and the two men crucified with him all mock Jesus and call on him to ‘come down’ from the cross (Mark 15:29-32). He then goes on to say that as Jesus breathes his last, ‘…the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’ (Mark 15:38), and it is the same Greek verb for tear that Mark used to describe the heavens in 1:10. Both of these tearings are “top down” if you like, acts of divine violence that announce God’s power and authority to act, but both being enacted in scenes of remarkable vulnerability.
By bookending his gospel with these two acts of violence, these two tearings, Mark invites us to read the whole of his gospel as the unfolding of the story of God coming down; a story that reaches its climax at the cross. The first tearing suggests that in the person of Jesus, God has indeed come down; the second tearing reveals- for those with eyes to see- what it really looks like for God to come down! How great, then, is the irony of the mocking voices that call upon Jesus to ‘come down’ from the cross! What they ask for is intentionally ironic, but the greater irony is that they have got more than they asked for, yet are too blind to see it.