My goal for both the Sunday homily and the weekly bulletin reflection is two-fold: to impart some background information that you can use when you read the Gospel privately, and to glean a practical, spiritual message. This week’s reflection will glance over the Passion narrative of Mark. I’m going to highlight a few scenes, comment on them, and share a thought about them that will, hopefully, assist you in you spiritual journey through Holy Week.
Mark’s account of the Passion begins two days before the feast of Passover. The chief priests and the scribes are looking for an excuse to arrest Jesus, and to have him put to death. The opening scene takes place in Bethany. Jesus is dining at the home of Simon the leper when a woman enters the dining room and pours a jar of expensive perfumed oil over him. We’re told that it’s worth a year’s salary. It was common practice at the time to pour a few drops of perfumed oil on the heads of guest when they entered someone’s home. But the amount of oil this woman poured over him is shocking. The guests are infuriated by the extravagance. Jesus rebukes them, however, interpreting her actions as an anticipation of his burial anointing. He even praises her for her actions. “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in her memory.”
In this short introductory scene Mark is telling us that the drama that is about to unfold will touch the entire world. This woman’s loving gesture acts as a contrast to Judas’ treachery. Mark concludes the scene by telling us that Judas had recently been paid by the chief priests to betray Jesus.
The following scene takes place on the first day of Passover. We’re told of the secretive arrangements Jesus had to make to set up the Seder for himself and his disciples because the situation with the chief priests and scribes made any movement on his part dangerous. Mark adds a subtle interpretation to the events that would soon unfold by noting that these preparations were being made at the exact time “when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.”
At this last Passover that Jesus celebrates with his disciples, he presents the bread to them saying, “This is my body.” He gave them the Seder cup to drink declaring, “This is my blood of the covenant.” Here we can look to Saint Paul for a commentary. “For I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in memory of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Jesus is THE Passover lamb. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we mystically enter the eternal moment of his redemptive sacrifice. This Passover Seder that Mark recounts acts as a foundation for his entire Passion account. Each scene of the Passion adds a layer of interpretation to the death of the Lord.
Jesus and the disciples then leave the place of the supper to go to the Mount of Olives. The place is noted because it was to the Mount of Olives that King David fled when his son Absalom had set up a plot to kill him. Mark is telling us that history is repeating 2 itself. From this point on, treachery and betrayal reign. Jesus agonizes over the events to come while his disciples sleep leaving him alone in his suffering. Three times he tells his Father, “Take this cup from me, but not what I will but what you will.” We see Jesus in agony, but in total harmony with the will of his Father.
When Judas arrives betraying Jesus with a brotherly kiss, all the disciples flee while the armed crowd drags Jesus away to the high priest. At this point in the narrative Mark inserts a warning for each of us. “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him. But he left the cloth behind and ran off.”
The linen cloth this young man is wearing is the ancient baptismal robe. He represents the newly baptized Christian who will be challenged, and even threatened, by the world because he is a follower of Jesus. There will be some Christians who will not be strong enough to stand up to the challenge. Some will abandon their baptismal garments. They will flee the Passion. This is a warning and a prediction.
A long “trial” follows. False witnesses are brought in but Jesus refuses to respond to their accusations. Finally, the high priest, Annas, takes the interrogation into his own hands and asks Jesus a direct question. “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?” Jesus’ response reveals the true meaning of his death. “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Jesus assured them that the one they are trying to destroy will return in glory. He is the Son of Man sent by God to judge the world for its violence, its lies and its injustice. A sequence of prophetic actions follows.
Members of the court and the guards blindfolded him, spit on him, and beat him, demanding, “Prophecy!” Yes! In reality he is the Prophet they have been waiting for.
Bound, Jesus is handed over to the civil authority, Pilate. He asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, an accusation the chief priests are making in their claim that Jesus is a revolutionary. Jesus throws the question back to Pilate. “You say that I am.” After the interrogation, Pilate commands that Jesus be scourged. Afterwards, he is taken to the praetorium where the soldiers perform a mock coronation. They strip Jesus, and clothe him in royal purple and place a crown made of thorns on his head. Yes! He is indeed the King the world has been waiting for.
Jesus is given the cross to carry to the place of his execution. The soldiers then press a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, to carry it for Jesus. Mark mentions this fact to alert the Christian community that some of them, too, will be pressed to carry the cross. Remember that the persecution of Christians had already begun at the time Mark was writing this Gospel. Even in our day, some Christians have shared in Christ’s crucifixion.
Arriving at Golgotha, Jesus is stripped and crucified. It is nine o’clock in the morning. The soldiers quickly gamble for his clothing. The scene is dark and malevolent. People are shouting at Jesus. Even the two men crucified with him are abusive to him. Mark notes that at noon darkness descends upon the earth intimating that this is a cosmic event. At three o’clock Jesus screams a phrase from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” The people believe he is calling upon the prophet Elijah, the prophet who was supposed to return to earth to announce the arrival of the Messiah. Little did they realize that John the Baptist had already announced the coming of the Messiah – he was Elijah. The moment of redemption was very near.
The King of the Jews, the Messiah, was stripped, abused, mocked and crucified. There was nothing left of him – even his clothing was taken from him. Screaming the words of Psalm 22 he gives up whatever hope he may have had – God had abandoned him. He screams again. What is this second scream? It is the birth scream. At his death new life has descended upon the earth. The old world is passing away.
“The veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” announcing that God is no longer distant and hidden. A new covenant has been sealed in the blood of Christ. Even the Gentiles acknowledge the arrival of the new time. “When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God!’”
The body of Jesus is then taken by Joseph of Arimathea which he wrapped in a linen cloth, and laid in a tomb. A stone is rolled against the entrance while Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses watch where Jesus was laid.
The din surrounding the execution has faded away. Creation is silent. The Sabbath rest has begun. The King is dead. Now we keep watch at the entrance of the tomb.