April 1, 2012 – Palm Sunday
Mark 14:1 – 15:47
The relentless development of the gospel story from Gethsemani to Golgotha is shaped by two constant motifs: inevitability: what is shown as happening must happen; and brutality: man is to man a wolf—homo homini lupus, as Plautus said some three centuries before the brutal events the gospel relates took place.
Jesus himself announces the motif of inevitability. He knows that his disciples will deny and betray him. And Peter and Judas dramatically prove him right. Brutality then quickly becomes reality.
The characters who enact these motifs are revealed as inevitably craven, avaricious, and power-mad. Peter fears being known as knowing Jesus. Judas sells Jesus. The Roman soldiers dress Jesus as the king that Herod once feared he might be. The chief priests act as judges who need no witnesses to condemn Jesus to death and have Pilate hand him over to be mocked, tortured, and crucified.
One way to read a story like this, which pursues its course with such a relentless design and with such compromised characters, is to say that it is predictable. Given the people involved we can expect nothing better than we get. And yet their very weaknesses cry out for the redemption of mankind that the Passion of Jesus enacts.
And we note that once the death of Jesus provides that redemption, the actions of those around him change. The Centurion speaks the truth: “Truly this man was God’s son.” Joseph of Arimathea goes boldly to Pilate and asks for the body of Jesus. The women of Galilee—represented by Mark as the two Marys—unintimidated, shame the fleeing apostles and accompany Jesus’s body to the tomb.
The long story of the Passion, then, is articulated along these simple lines of plot and character in which the evil actions of men lead to the death of Jesus. But that death immediately evokes a declaration of truth, an act of courage, and an enactment of loving care. There is, of course, the more complex drama of venality, cowardice, and political corruption implied in the whole of the gospel to amplify the wickedness of actions here motivated by money and power and their murderous use.
But do we not see this sort of thing everyday at home and abroad? Think of the madness of the wars and political executions now rife in the Middle East. Think of the fight over health care that has gone from “Death Panels” to “Buying Broccoli.” Think of the pursuit of greater social justice labeled as “Class Warfare.” Indeed, just think of the state of our own state at this very moment in our lives. Are we in our day any less in need of redemption than those we read about were in Jesus’s day?
As Holy Week begins, then, the gospel of Mark reminds us, in the stark simplicity of its narrative line, how very much in need of redemption we are. Who among us, after all, is bold enough to claim himself or herself better than, say, Peter or James or John? The Passion of Jesus sets before us, then and now, the consequences of the very sins that Jesus’ death was meant to ameliorate. But in the words of the Centurion and in the compassion of the Marys and in the boldness of Joseph of Arimathea we are reminded that perhaps we too can be moved to truth and goodness by the ordeal of Jesus.
The Passion ends on this note of hope, then, suggesting that even man, who is too often to man a wolf, might just possibly be changed by the Paschal Lamb.