Mark compresses the last events of Jesus’ life into one final week, and the liturgy puts the beginning and end of that week into one day. There are two gospel readings, one for the palm blessing and procession before the Mass, then the Passion account is read during the mass.
Mark 11:1-10 for the Palm Blessing and Procession
Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem for the Passover, at the beginning of the week before his death. Up to now, he has called for secrecy about his identity as the Messiah/Christ, but here that changes as he comes to the Holy City. Echoes behind this reading are prophecies from Zechariah; the first mentions the Mount of Olives as where God’s kingship will begin in the last days. Jesus comes as that king mentioned, but in the manner from a second prophecy: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you! A just saviour is he, gentle and riding on a colt, the foal of donkey’. Jesus does not enter as a military conqueror on a horse and chariot but in peace symbolized by the young colt.
We hear of the first of several mysterious persons in Mark’s Passion-Easter account. The owners of the colt respond to the need of the ‘Master’ (the word is better translated ‘Lord’ and was ambiguous then as it was used both for God and as a term of human respect – sometimes translated ‘sir’). This could be by some pre-arrangement the disciples don’t know about, which seems odd as he is just arriving, so we are left to guess how Jesus knew the details. Spreading cloaks before him was a sign of honour. The crowd greeting him sing words from Psalm 118, part of the ‘Great Hallel’ psalms of praise which were sung at feasts. The people add the hopeful note on the coming of the kingdom promised David; without actually calling Jesus the Messiah, they seem to be hoping for that fulfilment.
Isaiah 50:4-7 First Reading for the Mass
This is the third of four ‘Servant Songs’ in Second Isaiah, in which early Christians found insights into the life of Jesus, especially of his suffering. (Originally, the prophet may be reflecting on the suffering in the life of Jeremiah.) The speaker in this some is the ‘Servant’, who had been bringing good news, but it was not received by those who heard him. The persecution is poetically described. The willingness to face shame and death, trusting totally in God, is seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus in his passion.
Psalm 21/22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24
The response is much in the same mood with again an innocent person persecuted. The suffering is even more vividly portrayed in words that fit some of the events of the crucifixion of Jesus. All these verses are part of the psalm that Jesus will speak from the cross.
This may a hymn quoted by St Paul, or his own composition. In a poetic form, it contains a summary of Jesus’ life from pre-existence as equal to God the Father, down through the humbleness of becoming human, then accepting death, even the death of a criminal on a cross. Then comes an upward reversal as he is raised and re-united with his humanity to God in heaven.
Mark 12:1-15:47 or a shorter selection, 15:1-39
If only the shorter version is read at the mass you attend, it would be worthwhile to find some time during Holy Week to read the full account.
The long selection opens with the intent of the Chief Priests and the ‘scribes’ to arrest Jesus, and in one of Mark’s typical ‘sandwich’ patterns, this will be matched by Judas’ decision to betray him. In between, is the story of the unnamed woman who comes to anoint Jesus with an extravagantly expensive jar of perfumed ointment. Her intent is not told to us, but we may assume an act of devotion or even of recognition, for both kings and priests were anointed as a sign of their office. Jesus’ makes the connection with his death, for the usual anointing for burial will not take place after the crucifixion as the Resurrection will prevent the women who come on Easter morning from carrying out a belated anointing of what they expect to be Jesus’ dead body. The woman’s act of anticipating the anointing thus ties her action to the Resurrection and the proclamation of Good News and that seems the reason Jesus says the story will be told with the gospel message. Curiously, although the woman’s act is remembered, her name is not! This central section gives us the promise that the enemies of Jesus will not be triumphant in the end although seeming to succeed with their plotting.
With the preparations for the feast of Passover, the day of the Unleavened Bread, we meet another mysterious figure. Carrying water was the usual task of women, so a man with a pitcher would be easy to identify, but it again requires the disciples to follow the instructions even when they seem odd. This time the title Jesus tells them to use is ‘Teacher’ which may suggest the unnamed owner of the house with the large room has been a quiet, otherwise unknown, disciple of Jesus. ‘Couches’ are mentioned because at the time, guests reclined for a formal meal. Mark tells us very little about the Passover meal, except that Jesus first warns the disciples of betrayal, and perhaps as a last appeal, warns the betrayer of the horror of what is about to do. Then in the simplest and shortest of words, he gives them the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Mark tells nothing more of what could only have been a moment of great wonder to those first hearing and seeing Jesus and leaves it to our own meditation. Another ‘sandwich’ around this striking event is the prediction now of the desertion of the rest of the disciples and Peter’s denial.
The ‘Agony in the Garden’ is the first part of Jesus’ suffering and Mark makes it vivid indeed. Peter, James and John have been the ‘inner circle’ in other parts of the gospel, but here the attentive reader of the gospel will recall that these are the three who protested earlier that they were willing to share the suffering of Jesus. Now they miserably fail at the first simple test of staying awake while he prays.
The third and most mysterious figure is seen after the arrest: a young man strangely undressed except for ‘a linen cloth’, loose enough that he could escape when the temple police lay hands on him. The Greek word translated ‘linen cloth’ is the same word that will be used of the cloth Jesus’ body will be wrapped in. One traditional interpretation is that the man is Mark himself, but Mark does not hint that. The young man’s fear and fleeing with nothing on does emphasizes the total human desertion Jesus has at this point and some commentators think that the point of the odd detail
The same Greek word for ‘young man’ (neaniskos) will appear in Mark’s account of the empty tomb, where a ‘young man’, fully clothed this time in white, tells the women Jesus has risen and gone before his disciples to Galilee. Some of the persons in Mark’s gospel have symbolic roles to play, although they may also have been real historic persons. (One example is the blind man healed in two stages, which can be seen as symbolizing the way disciples came to understand Jesus partially before deeper knowledge comes – 8:22-26.) The young man who first runs away from the Passion could be seen as a ‘typical’ disciple, who later will have the task of proclaiming the Resurrection.
The drama of the two trials and the mistreatment are shown dramatically, giving us a sense of the speed of the events of the night. There is a hint of the future with Mark’s naming of the sons of Simon of Cyrene –Alexander and Rufus are not mentioned in the other gospels and must have been Christians known to Mark’s community.
The only words Mark records of Jesus’ on the cross are the opening lines of Psalm 21/22, a long lamentation of a persecuted righteous person. There is a great sense of desolation but that psalms ends in hope and triumph.
There were two veils in the Jewish temple, one for the innermost sanctuary entered only by the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement. The tearing of the veil is symbolic not only of the end of the Jewish sacrifices with Jesus as the perfect sacrifice but also suggests that God will no longer be inaccessible to people in a building but is in Jesus himself. The climax comes with the words of the centurion, and could there be a greater act of faith? ‘In contrast to the mockers who had demanded to “see” Jesus come down from the cross so that they might believe, the Centurion “sees” Jesus give up his life on the cross and believes.’ (Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.) Mark has pictured the depth of Jesus’ human suffering, but that is immediately followed by the exclamation of faith in his divine nature.
Quietly after this climax, Mark sets the stage for the Resurrection. The reality of Jesus’ death is carefully pointed out (against the later efforts of those who would claim there was no resurrection, and that he was not really dead). It is emphasized that the women know exactly where he is laid and will make no mistake such as finding a different empty tomb on Easter. After the horrors of the crucifixion, there is the gentle comfort of the women who – if from a distance – had kept watch over Jesus’ on the cross and are ready to serve him even in death. And the small ‘miracle’ of Joseph who had been too cowardly to acknowledge Jesus in life, now coming forward courageously to do what he can after the death.