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Today’s heading, the first verse from our reading from Philippians, could be the guideline to this first celebration of Holy Week (and, given the extension of today’s Lectio, to the Week as a whole). Jesus’ attitude, announced in the text from Isaiah, is that of self–denial and renouncement: “he emptied himself,” became the suffering servant and willingly fulfilled his Father’s will. Fidelity to God’s designs, expressed by his mature obedience as a free man, is perhaps the trait that best describes Jesus’ attitude during his entire life. Paul, in his introduction to the Christological hymn, invites the Christians from Philippi to have that same attitude in their lives.
The four Gospel accounts of the Passion offer not only the description of the events that happened in the last days of Jesus’ life, but at the same time provide us with a portrait of the people around the rabbi and prophet they had followed, admired, recognized as a man of God, betrayed and abandoned. Those characters may be a mirror where we can see traits of our own personality and attitude in our following of Jesus. If we look in depth, none of them is absolutely evil (not even Judas), and all of them together show a full image of our contradictory human nature. For Paul, no doubt, the community at Philippi, (or any Christian community for that matter), is an image of Christ, his visible body in this world; hence the importance of their behaviour amidst their generation, where they should shine as living lights (2:15).
The first character we find does not seem to play a role in Jesus’ passion, but she and her actions are the best anticipation, and a basic key, to all the events that are about to happen. After his entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple and his long disputes with his adversaries, Jesus returns to Bethany. There, in the houses of Simon the Leper, an unidentified woman (not a sinner, not Lazarus’ sister, not the Magdalene) anoints Jesus, and the extravagance of the perfume provokes a scandal among those present, ostensibly worried about the poor. No one seems to grasp the prophetic sign that only Jesus understands and explains: “She has anticipated anointing my body for burial” (14:8). She has also anticipated Jesus’ role as a king and priest that he will enact in his passion. Curiously, her gesture will be remembered, even if we do not know her name. This attitude of silent generosity and devotion will be completed by the words of the Roman centurion: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” (15:39). A pagan proclaims aloud what Mark had announced in the first line of the Gospel. As usual, a paradox: a woman and a Gentile enclose, as if they were brackets, the mysteries of Jesus’ passion and death.
The disciples deserve special attention. The three who were closest to Jesus, “could not keep watch for an hour” (14:37) when he was “troubled and distressed,” and prayed that the “hour might pass by him” (14:33-35). Even Simon, who had boasted about the firmness of his faith and his willingness “to die with you [him]” (14:29-31), will swear he did not know him (14:66-72). Judas, “one of the Twelve,” as Mark underlines, will betray him (14:10-11) and “will kiss” him as a sign for those who would arrest and “lead him away” (14:43-46). One of the “bystanders” (another disciple, we assume) tried to defend Jesus with a sword (14:47); another, a young man, fled, even if that meant the shame of his nakedness (14:51). But, in the end, they were all so frightened at the event, that “they all left him [Jesus] and fled” (14:50).
As for the authorities, we know too well the role they played. Those belonging to the religious élite, chief priests, Pharisees, scribes, were convinced that Jesus was a real danger to their social and political stability. After recurring to false witnesses to provide evidence and deliver Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus himself gave them the excuse to execute their plans. His words, “I am” (14:62) identifying himself with God, were utter blasphemy and deserved death (14:53-64).
The crowd that had greeted Jesus with hymns, and “spread their cloaks on the road” and “leafy branches” as he advanced riding on a colt, (11:8-10), will shout loudly and ask Pilate to “crucify him” a few days later (15:6-15). Some of them, when they saw him nailed to the cross, “reviled him,” while the chief priests, with the scribes, “mocked him” (15:29-32). Even the bandits crucified with Jesus insulted him (15:32).
The Roman characters play the roles we would expect in such circumstances. Pilate did not want to have problems with a rebellious crowd. Jerusalem was packed with people who had come for the Passover celebration, and they were, as we have seen, easily aroused and manipulated, so after a lukewarm attempt to exchange Jesus for Barabbas, (although he knew the crooked reasons invoked by the authorities), Pilate decided “to satisfy the crowd” and “handed him [Jesus] to be crucified” (15:1-15). As for the Roman soldiers, the cruelty of their actions reflect, unfortunately, their common practice with prisoners.
There are, still, two groups of people near Jesus. He must have been very weak, for they recurred to a passer-by, Simon, to carry the cross (15:21). Although he was forced to perform that task (the authorities could demand that type of service), and we have no hint about his religious feelings, Simon plays a deep symbolic role. His action recalls the two main conditions Jesus had posed to anyone who “wished to come after him,” that is, to denying himself and take up his cross (8:34). When reading or listening to this passage, persecuted Christians of the time must have had a clear understanding of what Jesus meant.
The women, not only those identified by name (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and Joses, and Salome), but the group of those who had followed him to Jerusalem, are there and, although they remained at a distance, they did not abandon him (15:40-41). That is why they will be the first witnesses to the resurrection.
Only after Jesus’ death, another character will enter the scene, Joseph of Arimathea, who will take care of his body and bury him (15:42-47). Just a linen cloth was used, no anointment or perfume, for Jesus had already been anointed by the unknown woman who would be remembered “wherever the Gospel is proclaimed” (14:9).
To be honest, the reading of the Passion is so rich, that I dare not give any guidelines for our Meditatio. Any approach you adopt can be valid. I humbly suggest comparing the actions of the characters we have seen with parallel feelings Jesus must (or may) have experience in relation to them, and trying to understand in what way he was following his Father’s designs. Or trying to identify yourself with some of those characters to find what you share with them. Or trying to find in your own personal environment circumstances similar to those described in the text: self-sufficiency and pride, treason, selfish interests, hidden fears, ingratitude… and courage and pity, compassion and sympathy, humble generosity and effective action. The list of positive and negative elements is endless. In any case, see in what ways you can get closer to the suffering Jesus who died for us.
As I was writing these lines, I heard the news that 21 Egyptian Christians from the Coptic Church have been beheaded on a beach near Tripoli for the simple fact of following Jesus. Let us pray –I know I have urged you to do so several times – for our brothers and sisters who are literally being persecuted because of their faith: that they may be comforted in their own “passion” by Jesus, whose steps they are following. Besides this particular intention, I suggest we should all pray for hope. In a sense, Jesus’ passion and death is a parable of the tormented, suffering existence many human beings undergo in our world. They carry in their bodies and souls the wounds Jesus himself suffered. Let us pray: that we may be conscious of such distress and find the effective means to alleviate them.
Our first reading today is one of the four songs of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah’s book. These hymns are read in the Catholic masses on the following days. Even if you are a regular churchgoer, read those songs, as they can help you prepare for the solemn celebrations: Isaiah 42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-9, and 52:13 – 53:12.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,
Generally, when we read the story of the passion and death, we look at Jesus and the suffering he had to endure. But it is worthwhile, at least once, to also look at the disciples and see how they reacted to the cross and how the cross impacted on their lives, for the cross is the measure for comparison!
Mark writes for the communities of the 70’s. Many of these communities, whether in Italy or Syria, were going through their own passion. They were faced with the cross in many ways. They had been persecuted at the time of Nero in the 60’s and many had died devoured by wild beasts. Others had betrayed, denied or abandoned their faith in Jesus, like Peter, Judas and other disciples. Others asked themselves: “Can I bear persecution?” Others were tired after persevering through many trials without any results. Among those who had abandoned their faith, some asked themselves whether it was possible to rejoin the community. They wanted to start their journey again, but did not know if it was possible to rejoin. A cut branch has no roots! They all needed new and strong reasons to restart their journey. They were in need of a renewed experience of the love of God, one that surpassed their human errors. Where could they find this?
For them, as for us, the answer is in chapters 14 to 16 of Mark’s Gospel, which describe the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, the time of the greatest defeat of the disciples and, in an hidden way, their greatest hope. Let us look into the mirror of these chapters to see how the disciples reacted to the Cross and how Jesus reacts to the infidelity and weaknesses of the disciples. Let us try to discover how Mark encourages the faith of the community and how he describes the one who is truly a disciple of Jesus.
This is the story of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus seen from the point of view of the disciples. The frequency with which this story speaks of the incomprehension and failure of the disciples, most probably corresponds to a historical fact. But the main interest of the Evangelist is not to tell that which took place in the past, rather he wants to provoke a conversion in the Christians of his time and to arouse in them and us a new hope, capable of overcoming discouragement and death. There are three things that stand out and need to be considered deeply:
Mark emphasises the presence of the women who follow and serve Jesus from the time he was in Galilee and who go up to Jerusalem with him (Mk 15:40-41). Mark uses three words to define the relationship of the women with Jesus: Follow! Serve! Go up! They “followed and looked after” Jesus and together with many other women “went up with him to Jerusalem” (Mk 15:41). These are the three words that define an ideal disciple. They are the models for the other disciples who had fled!