Palm (Passion) Sunday
Mark 14:1-15:47 or 15:1-39
Today the Church celebrates the Commemoration of the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem. We more frequently use the names Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Because it is a unique day we also have three variations for the entrance of this liturgy. The first form, preferred for this day, involves a procession. This is difficult to do in any large parish. Assembling a large group of people outside of the worship area for blessing and distribution of Palm’s, and then processing into the worship area can be a logistical headache. However since most of my ministry is in retreat centers, I’ve really grown to appreciate this procession. The blessing and remembrance of Palm’s resounds with triumphant voices as we recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. We sing our Hosannas to the King while we waive our palm branches. There’s something gloriously exciting about this moment as we are all filled with anticipation. However, as our procession moves into the worship space, the mood changes radically. That electrically charged moment is sobered by readings of betrayal, abandonment, conspiracy, intimidation, suffering and crucifixion. What happens outside the worship space is set in high contrast with the readings proclaimed inside our space of worship.
The first reading today, from the prophet Isaiah as well as the psalm were both familiar to Jesus. Isaiah articulates the gift of prophetic speech and the power that he has which comes from God. Additionally this "Song of the Suffering Servant" highlights the faithfulness of the servant which is founded on the fidelity of God. Certainly Jesus not only read and prayed these passages, he understood his life and death to be their fulfillment. Additionally, Psalm 22 would have been familiar to Jesus. There is nothing in the psalm which makes one feel good. It’s about faithfulness even in the midst of suffering, loss and abandonment. Jesus would have certainly been familiar with both of these texts, holding them in his heart and mind.
Our founder, St. Paul of the Cross, used to say that all can be found in the Passion. Since today we proclaim Mark’s Gospel narrative of the Passion of Jesus, let’s briefly look at some of the plots of this story. The Gospel begins with a plot to kill Jesus. It is a story of conspiracy and murder. Amidst the darkness of this moment the next paragraph illumines the excessive and aromatic abundance as Jesus is anointed. One can almost smell the richness of that moment in Mark’s writing. Have you ever noticed, in the darkest times of your life, there was some small little thing which was a very bright spot? Whether Jesus is reclining at table here in Bethany or later in the city of Jerusalem celebrating Passover, food is always a priority for Jesus. (It’s one of those things we always love about him isn’t it?) And somehow that Passover meal becomes not only a religious act but a pronouncement and celebration to his disciples of how much he loves them. And just like real life, when everything seems to be going really great, look out! In the middle of this final meal together, Jesus is now being betrayed by one in his inner circle.
Whether it’s stories of Judas’ betrayal, or Peter’s denial, this narrative is filled with emotional pain. Additionally, the stories of physical violence including torture and crucifixion revealed the physical pain.
Mark’s passion narrative illustrates the sad reality that the last few hours of Jesus’ life are a place where personal desire meets divine obedience, and personal friendships and relationships crumble. Misaligned perceptions, false accusation, false testimonies, lies and deception rise to be the judge of truth. Yet Jesus’ faithful testimony to the truth will be the very thing which leads to the only charge which can be brought against Jesus—blasphemy. Notice, at no point does Jesus ever separate himself from the accused.
Mark’s passion narrative includes other themes such as being taken where you do not want to go, knowing the authority and power of silence, and the conviction of speaking and testifying to the truth. Simon of Cyrene reiterates the role of service even when it is inconvenient. And the two insurgents crucified with Jesus reiterate themes of testimony and belief.
This is a religious story. One that takes place in a historical religious context, and yet establishes a new covenant. He is the fulfillment of Scripture and through this story we see a kingdom is established. Why is it the condemned man is now the king? Do you see the paradox in this? And speaking of paradox why is it that the Roman centurion recognizes that Jesus is the son of God, but the chief priests don’t?
This Gospel is written to jar us. It boldly displays the anguish of Jesus and the cruelty of the process. It screams of Jesus’ innocence, and frustrates our confidence in structures which we’ve held true for generations. But ultimately, it drops the bomb right in our lap of that most difficult question, do you believe that good really is more powerful than evil?
Fr. David Colhour, C.P. is on the staff at Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center, Citrus Heights, California.