Sunday, 29 March 2015

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion - 29 March 2015

Mark’s account of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus is simple, even austere. It flies along from moment to moment, summarizing the events that took place over a period of twenty-four hours, from the preparation for the Passover to the burial of his body. It provides the schema for the more elaborated accounts we find in the other three gospels. 

Because his account is so succinct, it is even more interesting to consider things that are found only in Mark’s account and are not picked up by the others.

One of these is the use of the term ‘Abba’ in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. It was accepted for a long time that this Aramaic term was an intimate form of address for a father by his child, something like ‘daddy’ or ‘dad’. More recently scholars have been questioning this interpretation. In any case wherever it occurs in the New Testament it is always in combination with the Greek term for father, pater (here at Mark 14:36 and in Paul’s two uses of it, Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6).

There are many other references to Jesus praying to his father and it may be that Mark wants to stress the intimacy of that relationship in the moment in which it is put to its severest test. The other points at which Aramaic terms are recorded in the gospels all involve strong emotional reactions in Jesus. Paul then teaches us that the relationship Jesus had with the Father is one we are all invited to share. The inability of his disciples to stay with Jesus through the agony in the garden, however, will be familiar to us already from our experiences of trying to remain faithful to his teaching.

Mark’s account of the passion is spread out across the watches of the night. In a number of acts the drama unfolds, between dusk and dawn, moving on then to the other events of Good Friday. The book of Exodus described the night before the crossing of the Red Sea as 'a night of watching by the Lord' (Exodus 12:42) who, like an anxious parent, a vigilant sentry, or a protective guardian, watches over his loved one. That was the original vigil, kept by God, as he watched over his child Israel. Mark’s account of the passion presents us with another night of watching by Abba, Father, who will never abandon his Son, but will raise him up to sit at his right hand in the kingdom of the glory that is coming.

Another incident recorded in Mark and nowhere else involves a young man wearing only a linen cloth that is pulled from him as he escapes, naked, from the garden. Mark offers no explanation, nor does he identify the young man. Linen clothes are associated with the priesthood and with the liturgies of the Temple. We are told that all his disciples abandoned him except this young man who was also following him. Perhaps it is John, the beloved disciple, whom John’s gospel will tell us was at the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus.

There is a verse in the prophecy of Amos, speaking of God’s judgement on Israel, which says that 'the bravest of warriors will flee naked on that day' (Amos 2:16). 'That day' is the day of the Lord’s judgement of his people. Perhaps this is what we are meant to see in this strange moment recorded by Mark, a fulfillment of this prophecy. It will seem in what follows that Jesus is the one being judged, whereas in reality his trial and execution is the revelation of God’s justice and, by contrast, the condemnation of human injustice.

Perhaps the young man is a heavenly and angelic figure, leaving Jesus for the moment, only to appear later at the tomb. Where the naked Jesus had been wrapped in a linen cloth, a young man now appears clothed in white, telling the women that Jesus is risen from the dead. Perhaps he is a figure marking the transition from the end of Jesus’ earthly life to the beginning of his Risen Life. And in doing so prefiguring the reborn Christian who will descend, naked, to be baptized and rise with Christ to be anointed and wrapped in the white garment of his new dignity.

In spite of its simplicity and its pace there are many points in Mark’s passion narrative which encourage us to stop, and to ponder.

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