Commentary to the Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
A good Sunday to all.
Today there is almost unanimous agreement among biblical scholars that at the basis of the passion narratives of the four evangelists there is an older, original story, written a few years after the events. It is an account that was taken almost literally by the oldest of the evangelists, Mark.
Why do we say this? When we read it, we often hear mention of the high priest, but we are not told his name. The other evangelists who took this original text and followed it as an outline of the facts, when they mention the high priest, they always add Caiaphas. The original text was written shortly after of what has happened, Caiaphas is not mentioned because he was still in office, since Caiaphas falls in the year 36, this original passion text must have been written before the year 36.
It was a very dear account for the Christians of the first generation, it was often read in the assemblies and we wonder why, because they wanted the Christians to always to contemplate the true face of God, the face of God who is love, only love, revealed on Calvary, in the life-giving face of Jesus. Man has always wanted to see the face of God.
We remember Moses asking the Lord: "Show me your face"; then the psalmist: "Do not hide your face from me, Lord, your face, I seek." And it was reading this page that the Christian community contemplated this face of God, love. This primitive account was then taken up by the four evangelists who inserted the details, the underlining which served to highlight the catechetical themes that they considered significant and urgent for their communities.
Today we will approach the account that we find in Mark, which preserves practically to the letter that primitive account so loved by the first community. And, for that reason, I would say that it is with an attitude full of emotion that we approach this page and we can even imagine listening to it, standing, among Christians of the first community of Jerusalem. We will dwell on just a few details that are present only in Mark's account.
We begin by calling attention to a first feature. Mark, unlike the other evangelists, emphasizes the very human reactions of Jesus before the death that awaits him. He presents him frightened and terrified.
Let us listen:
"Whey went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’ Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him.”
Only Mark notes that Jesus in the Garden of Olives realizing that he was wanted for death says that he was “deeply distressed and troubled.” The other evangelists avoid presenting a fearful Jesus, almost shaken by a fear he cannot control. History remembers many heroes who faced death with serenity, with contempt for suffering. Let's think of Socrates who, after having serenely discoursed about the immortality of the soul with his disciples, takes the cup of hemlock and calmly drinks the poison, and then recommends to his disciple Craton to offer a rooster to Aesculapius, the god of health because for Socrates death was a healing of the fragile condition in which man lives. It is not among these characters that Jesus must be placed.
Jesus wept, he was afraid of death because he loved this life, this earthly reality, and in Gethsemane he looked for someone who understood him, who would be near him at the moment of the most dramatic choice of his life; he could also have recklessly fled in the face of death, but he did not. It is consoling to us that the events took place as Mark tells us, contemplating this ‘man’ Jesus,’ not a superman; our fellow sufferer, we feel close, as one of us. When life puts us in front of a very hard test and even death, we get scared and if that difficult moment is not lived in the light of God we can also lose our mind and make wrong decisions.
Jesus teaches us how to face these situations: by praying.
"In Gethsemane Jesus prayed like this: ‘Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”
Only Mark, referring to Jesus' prayer to the Father, in Gethsemane, notes the Aramaic appellative he used: Abba. The rabbis said that when a child began to taste wheat when it was weaned, he would learn to say 'abba' and 'imma'. You hear the expression of the child who begins to pronounce his first words; he can't say daddy he says: 'ba' or 'ma' for daddy and mommy. Adults avoided using this childish expression 'abba' but they would take it up again when their father was old, declining, and they would start again to call him 'abba' giving the impression to the father that they were still children and so he should still feel young.
‘Abba' is a child word because it expresses the trust and tenderness of Jesus towards the Father and that same word Jesus will put it on our lips in prayer because when we address God we must cultivate this trust and tenderness.
We, like the adults of Jesus' time, find it difficult to use this word which should be translated in English as 'daddy,' the expression that children use with their father. Then, as adults, we don't use it anymore. Jesus wants us to cultivate that relationship that he had with his Father, the invitation to never doubt, even in the most seemingly absurd situations, that God is close to us and loves us. And this prayer helps us to always remember that he is ‘Abba’ and that he has the destiny of our life in his hands, and therefore we are in good hands. This we can understand only by praying in all the difficult moments of our life.
Jesus addressed his Father and called him ‘Abba.’ Was he, perhaps, doubting that God was a Father who accompanied him? No, he showed all his trust and confidence in his Father. There is another characteristic of Mark's narrative and that is that in his writing there is no reference to any reaction from Jesus to two gestures that take place during the arrest in Gethsemane.
The first: Jesus does not say a word when Judas kisses him; then he does not react when one of those present puts his hand on the sword.
“Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: ‘The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword
and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.’”
All the other evangelists relate some words that Jesus addressed to Judas; Luke, for example, says: "Judas, with a kiss do you betray the Son of Man?"; and Matthew, when Peter puts his hand on the sword, refers to Jesus' words: “Put your sword back in its sheath.” Mark shows us Jesus who does not rebel against events that he cannot avoid; he accepts almost passively what happens to him and in the end he concludes by simply saying that the Scriptures be fulfilled.
What does the evangelist Mark want to make us understand with this silence of Jesus? He wants the Christians of his communities to contemplate a meek and unarmed Jesus who surrenders to his enemies without reacting. There are moments in our lives when we can do nothing but accept events. The one who has accepted the proposal of a new man made by Jesus must take into account that he lives next of those who still belong to the kingdom of the beasts, those who are not involved, like Judas, for example, in the new world, in the new humanity.
The Christian must know that he will also have to face falsehood, hypocrisy, injustice, violence, which are behaviors of those who still belong to the old world. How to react in these situations? Here is Mark, who puts the person of Jesus in front of the disciple, it is like him that we should behave. And then, in Mark, Jesus does not deign to utter a word of reproach
to Peter's foolish gesture; the fact that he puts his hand on the sword it is a gesture that is so farfrom the evangelical principles that it does not even deserve to be taken into consideration. Peter was still involved in the criteria, in the solutions of the problems proposed by the world.
In fact, Jesus had told him: “You reason according to people, not according to God.” The disciple, who, like Peter, believes that he can initiate the new world using the methods of the old world, which are violence, the use of force, not only does he not create a new world, but it worsens the old one. The one who uses violence moves further and further away from the Master and plunges into the darkness of the night, as Peter did. All the evangelists say that as soon as the disciples realized that Jesus did not react, he did not fight,
did not invite to fight, everyone deserted him and fled, but only Mark remembers a curious detail:
"After Jesus was arrested, everyone deserted him and fled. A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”
The detail of this young man running away is really marginal, we wonder why the evangelist included it. The common interpretation considers it an autobiographical detail and the tradition has in fact identified in that boy the Mark; but we wonder if this scene, apparently a little comical, does not have a symbolic meaning. I think that the message can be received by paying attention to some terms that the evangelist Mark chooses carefully. The first 'νεαν?σκος' = 'neaniskos', Greek for 'young man,' is one of about 15 to 18 years of age. And we find that in the gospel of Mark this term is used only here and when another young man appears at the tomb on Easter day, clothed in a white robe who says to the women: "You are looking for Jesus the crucified, he is not here."
This young man in Gethsemane is wrapped in a white sheet but the Greek term Mark uses is 'σινδ?να' = 'sindóna', in a shroud, and he is wrapped in a shroud and naked. The naked body was placed in the shroud and then laid in the tomb. What does Mark want to suggest? The guards manage to catch this young man, as they caught Jesus. But what does this young man leave in the hands of the guards? The shroud. He flees naked.
That young man, Mark suggests, is the image of what happens to Jesus. Jesus has been caught, but what will Jesus leave in the hands of these guards at the service of the powers of this world? He will leave the shroud, not his person. In Jesus was present the life of the Eternal in its fullness and this life of the Eternal escapes the powers of this world. That is exactly what happens to us because we too, have received the gift of this life from the Eternal, and so when our biological life grows, it comes closer and closer to its conclusion with each passing day.
When we reach the conclusion of our life what can the world hold? Our remains, the shroud, not our person. In contemplating this scene of this young man, we see what happened to Jesus. Like the young man, Jesus left his shroud to enter into the life that is ever young. What happened to Jesus is the image of what happens to each of his disciples; the entrance, after leaving our remains, into a life that is eternally young.
Another characteristic of the passion narrative according to Mark is the silence of Jesus. In Mark's passion narrative Jesus is always silent before the religious authorities who ask him if he is the messiah, and before Pilate who wants to know if he is king, he simply answers 'I am' and nothing more.
“Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?’ But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.” “Before Pilate the chief priests were accusing him. Again Pilate questioned him, ‘Have you no answer? See how many things they accuse you of.’ Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.”
During the trial, nothing came out of the mouth of Jesus; before the insults, the provocations, the lies, and the false witnesses. Jesus is silent, he answers nothing, he knows that those who want to condemn him are aware of his innocence; he knows that his enemies have already decreed his death, therefore it is not worth lowering himself to their level to argue with them, it would be useless therefore he is silent. There is a silence that is a sign of weakness, lack of courage, that of those who do not intervene to denounce injustice because they are cowards, those who seek their own interest more than the truth, those who do not want to make enemies with the people they count on to receive favors. This is a bad silence.
If, instead, it is a silence which is a sign of strength, of courage, the silence of the one who does not react to provocations, the silence of the one who does not cower before arrogance, insult, slander; the noble silence of the one who is convinced of his own loyalty, of his own righteousness. and is sure that the just cause for which he fights will eventually triumph. The Christian is not a coward who resigns himself and does not fight against evil, he is one who loves truth and justice more than his own life, and has also the strength to be silent, as the Master did, never to resort to the means employed by the one who attacks him with slander, slander, and disloyalty.
All the evangelists point out that after an initial enthusiastic welcome the crowds gradually parted from Jesus and that in the end Jesus remained only with the 12 and these in turn at the time of the decisive election fled, but no one like Mark highlights the loneliness of Jesus during the passion.
Let us listen:
"Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days,save yourself by coming down from the cross.” Likewise, the chief priests, with the scribes, mocked him among themselves and said, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him. At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Reading the passion narratives of the other evangelists, we always find someone at the side of Jesus willing to help him. For example, the evangelist John remembers the beloved disciple, and also remembers Peter who follows Jesus at least to some extent. Matthew remembers Pilate's wife who commands her husband to say: 'Let this man go... for last night I was troubled in my sleep.’ Luke recalls that on the way to Calvary there is a great multitude of people, there are the women who follow Jesus, and then at Calvary, Luke, mentions the good thief.
In Mark, during the Passion, there is no one. Jesus is rejected by the crowd, which prefers Barabbas, he is ridiculed and beaten, humiliated by the soldiers and insulted by the passers by and by the leaders of the people who are present at Calvary. Beside him there is no one; only at the end Mark notes that there were some women who watched from afar. All alone. Jesus felt the anguish of one who is sure that he has committed himself to the Lord with the just cause but who feels defeated and there is his cry: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A cry that seems scandalous but which expresses his inner drama.
At the moment of death Jesus has experienced impotence, failure in the struggle against injustice, against falsehood. He feels defeated. The one who commits himself to live coherently the life of the new man, the one who wants to build the new world as Jesus did must take into account that at the crucial moment he may be abandoned by his friends, rejected even by his own family, he may feel abandoned by God who does not perform any miracle in his favor. In these moments, he can also utter the cry that Jesus uttered, but utter it together with Jesus.
At a climax of the whole story of the passion of Jesus according to Mark is the profession of faith, not of one of the disciples, but of the centurion at the foot of the cross. It is the most important moment of the gospel according to Mark.
"One of the soldiers ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.’ Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”
From the beginning of Mark's gospel the multitudes ask "but who is this that casts out demons, who performs wonders" and also the disciples ask "who is this man whom the waves of the sea obey?” but no one is able to grasp his true identity, and when someone proclaims him to be the Son of God... let us remember, for example, already from the beginning in the synagogue of Capernaum, the demoniac who cries out: "I know who you are, the holy one of God," immediately Jesus says: "Be silent." And this silence is always imposed by Jesus; no one must reveal his identity, why? Because in view of the wonders he performs, his identity could be misinterpreted, that is, he could be considered a messiah according to the people’s expectations, to be a glorious, conquering, dominating messiah, who performs prodigious miracles. NO.
Jesus had come to reveal the true face of God and this face of God would be revealed in its fullness at a very precise moment in his life, it will be at Calvary. What happens at Calvary? The disciples have all fled, the multitudes that acclaimed him are no longer there, they have disappeared. There is a centurion, the one who leads those soldiers who have crucified Jesus. The text says that, seeing how he has died, he exclaims: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
When this expression was said by someone during his public life, Jesus immediately imposed silence. Here Jesus can no longer impose silence because he is dead; from here on we can proclaim his identity as Son of God because now there is no possibility of misunderstanding. He is the Son of God, that is to say, he reveals the face of the heavenly Father because the expression 'son of' means 'like unto,' rather than 'generated from'; henceforth those who recognize in the face of Jesus the face of the Father are not the disciples, it is the centurion, a Roman soldier.
Now everyone can recognize in Jesus the Son of God because when they see how he died, that is, when they see how much love he testified. The total gift of life is the ultimate sign of love, and it is this sign of love that reveals the face of God in its fullness and this identity was recognized by the centurion. It is in this context that it became evident the meaning of the veil of the temple that was torn in two from top to bottom.
The evangelist Mark uses here the same verb that was used at the time of Jesus' baptism when it is said that the heavens were torn, were rent asunder; 'σχιζω' = squizo means to break in such a way that it can no longer be mended. It is broken what was considered the seven heavens, and above them was the throne of God. They were closed, and now they are rent asunder. Harmony has been restored between heaven and earth. Before there was the silence of God because God did not send prophets anymore because people did not listen to them. But now those heavens are torn apart.
God has sent his Son; peace has been restored between heaven and earth. And now the heavens are not only rent asunder, now all the barriers of the earth have fallen, those barriers that prevented people from meeting each other with the Lord. The veil of the temple separated the holy from the holy of holies; and in the holy of holies, where it was thought
that God was present, the Lord God of Israel, only the high priest could enter once a year. Now that veil has been torn from top to bottom. There has been no material tearing of the veil of the temple, but a prodigy much more extraordinary has happened. Now the Father's house is wide open for all his sons and daughters. All his sons and daughters may enter in the house even if he or she is a sinner because God considers every person his son, his daughter.
After the death of Jesus all the evangelists introduce Joseph of Arimathea into the scene, the authorized member of the Sanhedrin, who went to Pilate to get the authorization to bury the crucified one, but only Mark specifies that it is a courageous gesture:
“When it was already evening, since it was the day of preparation, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished member of the council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, came and courageously went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was amazed that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion and asked him if Jesus had already died. And when he learned of it from the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph watched where he was laid.”
To declare oneself a disciple of Jesus when the multitudes acclaim him is easy, but to present oneself as his friend in the face of the authority that condemned him requires great courage; and it is this courage that Mark emphasizes in Joseph of Arimathea. Mark wanted to give a message to his communities, but this message is also very important for our communities today. The evangelist wanted to present this person in front of his Christians
and to us because many times the disciples become opportunists, inconstant, weak, lacking courage, when it is necessary to profess their faith in front of those who do not accept it, they are tempted to be ashamed of the moral values taught by Christ. Perhaps to avoid displeasure or simply not to be laughed at, they easily adapt themselves to the current morals.
The evangelist Mark says that the true disciple is a courageous person, gives testimony with his life and with his word to the proposal of the new man that Jesus came to make. I wish you all a good Sunday and a good preparation for Easter.