Four Odd Scenes from Mark’s Passion Narratives

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Isaiah 50:4-7

The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

Philippians 2:6-11

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We are coming to the climax of the Lenten season, the beginning of Holy Week, and it is a great privilege to read in one of the passion narratives. Martin Taylor, a German theologian, once said, “The Gospels are passion narratives with long introductions.” Nevertheless, to many people, the problem is that the very familiarity of the story can undermine our understanding of it, and we hear the story so many times that we barely attend to it. Therefore, in this reflection, let us draw our attention to four odd details of the Passion of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, to allow us to defamiliarize the story, and to bring out some features that we would normally overlook.

Here is how the passion narrative begins: “Jesus is at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.” (Mk 14:3). In the ancient world, this is an extravagant act to waste something as expensive as an entire jar of perfume. They say, “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?” (Mk 14:4). But Jesus praises the woman for her generosity, and promises that this act would be forever remembered. Why would Mark use this tale as a preface to the whole passion narrative? It is because by this very act the woman shows the meaning of the passion, a total gift of self. The woman gives everything away, to “break open the jar”, her own hearted love! In the same way, we are called to this excessive offer , self, a
similar extravagance in love.

Another detail that readers may have overlooked is the one at the end of the Last Supper, after singing songs of praise, they walked out to the Mount of Olives, where Gethsemane is (Mk 14:9). So Jesus is entering into the horrible suffering of His life, leading to His crucifixion. What is Jesus doing with His disciples just before this terrible and final night? He is singing. This scene creates a very odd and macabre moment. The point is Jesus knows that this singing is in fact appropriate. It is not to deny the terror of the night, nor the seriousness of what would follow, but to acknowledge that an act of total love is the passage to the fullness of life, and that is why He sings. Likewise, how fascinating we sing at Mass! Every Eucharistic liturgy is a re-presentation and remembrance of that terrible night, and an even more terrible day following it. Right after the consecration, we sing our way all through the Mass. It is strange and odd, but wonderful, as it is the teaching of this deep spiritual truth, that through this awful path we come to life!

Here is the third odd scene peculiar to Mark. There is “a young man followed Him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seize him, but he leaves the cloth behind and runs off naked” (Mk 14:51-52). This young man is described as a follower of Jesus, and he is wearing a flimsy garment called “sindonae”, a Greek word used for the garment worn by the newly baptized. When they come to get Jesus, this young baptized follower of Jesus runs away, and leaves behind his baptismal garment. Here is the point: To be a follower of Jesus is to walk a dangerous path, a path led to the cross. Those who follow him “take up your cross every day and come after me” (Lk 9:23), and we are meant to accept the Truth with courage! The shame of this young man is that at the moment of truth he flees, leaving behind his baptismal identity, precisely in the hands of Jesus’ enemies. The same question is raised to us, we who wear the same baptismal garment, what do we do at the same moment of the Truth?

Here is a final episode which we would like to focus on. After the death of Jesus, and at that moment, “the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mk 15:38). In the Old Testament, the curtain was also the one which shielded the Holy of holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple where only the high priest could venture once a year. It was where the holiest exchange between divinity and humanity happened. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain is torn in two, so now that everyone has access to the Holy of holies! In Jesus’ great act of love and sacrifice, the communion between divinity and humanity has been utterly and fully realized. It is in the torn Body of the Son of God, given away freely in love, that we see right into the Holy of holies!

Friends, please let these four scenes from Mark’s passion narrative wash over our own mind and heart in this Holy Week, and God bless you.

This is an excerpt from Bishop Robert Barron’s homilies, including “The Passion Narrative Of Mark’s Gospel”.
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Posted: March 28, 2021

Ben Cheng


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