Sunday of the Passion of Jesus: Palm Sunday
The Palm Sunday gospel reading is a meditation on how we have contributed, actively or by omission, to the suffering and crucifixion of others, but also how we can look to bring the hope of resurrection to others by adopting the kind of compassion, kindness and encouragement which Jesus proclaimed and for which he lived and died, writes Christian Brother Julian McDonald.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches they had cut from the fields. Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Mark 11, 1-10
A young man was following along. All he had on was a linen sheet. Some of the men grabbed him but he got away, running off naked, leaving them holding the sheet. Mark 14, 1 - 15, 47
We’ve heard today’s two Gospel readings so often that we run the risk of being complacent when we are asked to listen to them yet again. I have to remind myself that whenever the Word of God is proclaimed, I am being invited to become a participant rather than an observer. So, as I hear Mark’s account of the seemingly triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, I am challenged to ask myself where I stand and what are my expectations of Jesus and the kind of kingdom he has been proclaiming. At the time of Jesus, palm-waving was a political gesture made to welcome a conquering hero. The crowds welcoming Jesus with waving palms and cloaks spread on the ground were not so much saluting their long-awaited Messiah, as they were anticipating the arrival of one who would take up a defiant stance against the Romans who had occupied their nation. They were hoping for the restoration of Israel to a position of prosperity and power. Within a week their hopes would be dashed. Rather than symbols of triumph, the palms and cloaks were signs of human ambition and folly, for Jesus had come into the lives of his people to raise their minds and hearts beyond their desire for material wealth and personal and political status, and to get them to focus their attention on the values that would bind them closer together in the kind of community where respect for human dignity mattered and where kindness, forgiveness, compassion and justice were what really counted.
Mark’s account of the passion and death of Jesus is marked by its stark directness. It is as significant for what it doesn’t say as for what it actually says. Jesus has nothing to say to the Judas who betrays him. Nor does he say anything to Pilate during the procurator’s interrogation. By contrast, Matthew, Luke and John describe how Jesus replies to Pilate’s questions. In Mark, there is no indication of any effort by Pilate to save Jesus from his enemies. In Mark’s version, Jesus is totally alone, abandoned by those from whom he might have expected support. Jesus’ disciples fail miserably, and their failure is underlined by the lone disciple who runs naked into the dark of night. For Mark, that young disciple’s flight stands in marked contrast to all the disciples who had left everything several years before in order to follow Jesus. The naked man now leaves everything in order to get as far away as possible from Jesus. The other disciples have already disappeared. Totally abandoned, Jesus is left to walk alone to his inevitable death.
But let’s look at the succession of events that led to his condemnation. Pilate knew that Jesus had been sent before him on “trumped up” charges. Self-interest was more important to Pilate than was justice for Jesus. Political unrest was something the Romans could do without. So, a carpenter from an obscure village, a nonentity with unpopular religious views, was clearly expendable. Pilate lacked the intestinal fortitude to stand up for what he knew to be right and just.
The High Priest was the guardian of law and tradition. Anyone who threatened the religious status quo was guilty of blasphemy. Dogma and institution must be safeguarded against would-be reformers. The High Priest and the Sanhedrin have had their successors in every faith and religion down through the centuries. “Temple police” abound in our present day. Rubricists are on the lookout for priests who refuse to be bound by legalism; Bishops have been sacked for putting pastoral needs ahead of the letter of the law, and Pope Francis has been labelled a heretic by those who insist that institution and orthodoxy are more important than mercy and compassion. In recent years, we have been shocked by national leaders, high-ranking military officers and rank-and-file soldiers who have tried to justify ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and savagery in the name of “just doing our duty”. These are clones of the soldiers who “did their duty” as they tortured Jesus and nailed him to his cross. Finally, there were the onlookers who saw Jesus stumble and fall on his way to execution. Doubtless there were some who would have reflected on Jesus’ folly in taking on the establishment: “Anyone who takes on those who hold the power is bound to get hurt!” Perhaps the majority who saw or just heard about what was done to Jesus, found protection for themselves in distancing themselves from what was happening, in refusing to get involved in what they preferred to see as no business of theirs.
So the gospel we hear today is an account of how Jesus was crucified because of cowardice, religious bigotry, naked power, expedience, fear, and not wanting to get involved. We can choose to stay at a distance - or we can accept Mark’s challenge to immerse ourselves in the narrative. And there is a personal cost for daring to immerse ourselves. The human weaknesses that saw Jesus tortured and done to death are very much alive in our world today. If we dare to look in the mirror, we will see some of those weaknesses in ourselves. Which of us has been totally free of cowardice, self-interest, surety that we are right, indifference, fear, prejudice, religious bigotry or intolerance of difference? There is nothing violent or brutal about these vices. They are dressed in the camouflage of sophistication. Yet we seem them used everywhere to crucify the victims and refugees of war, injustice and political intrigue all over our world. Wherever people and our planet are treated with less than the dignity and respect to which they are entitled, the crucifixion of Christ continues.
Yet, Mark’s account of the passion and death of Jesus is not totally bleak. There are clear signs of hope and life. The tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom is a symbol to indicate that the old order has passed away and a new way of being and doing and relating is about to replace it. Surprisingly, a Roman centurion, a man who knew nothing of Judaism but who had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, proclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” To cap all this off, a Jewish elder and member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea finds the courage to ask Pilate for the release of Jesus’ body, which he buries with respect and dignity. Today’s gospel reading is, therefore a meditation on how we have contributed, actively or by omission, to the suffering and crucifixion of others, but also how we can look to bring the hope of resurrection to others by adopting the kind of compassion, kindness and encouragement which Jesus proclaimed and for which he lived and died.