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Mark’s Passion Narrative
Fr. Tom O'Reilly, SSC

On Palm Sunday this year we will hear Mark’s passion narrative and on Good Friday we will hear that of John. The two are very different, particularly in the way they present Jesus. Compare, for instance, John’s all-knowing and commanding Jesus in the garden (Jn 18:1-11) with Mark’s distressed and struggling Jesus in the same scene (Mk 14:32-42). We must read Mark’s passion narrative on its own terms, not allowing the emphases of other passion narratives to blunt the impact of Mark’s stark and dark picture. The suspense that has been building up in Mark’s story is now moving towards resolution. The rapid pace of the earlier narrative now slows down to an hour-by-hour account of Jesus’ suffering and death. Mark does not want us to rush over his story of the passion (14:1-15:47).

We see Jesus accepting his role as suffering Messiah, though as a human being he recoils from it. He has his body anointed for burial, when the leaders are conspiring with a disciple to bring about his death (14:1-11). During a last Passover meal with disciples, he presents his sacrificial death for others in signs of broken bread and wine from crushed grapes (14:22-25). He is troubled in the realization that, in his hour of need, he will be betrayed, deserted and denied by his closest friends (14:18-21, 26-31). In a state of extreme agitation and grief, and surrounded by disciples who offer no support, he struggles in prayer to do the will of the One he calls ‘Abba, Father’ (14:32-42). He is betrayed by the kiss of a disciple into the hands of his enemies, and all his disciples desert him (14:43-52). The ‘trial’ before the leaders of his people is the climatic moment of Jesus’ self-revelation when, in the midst of false accusations and suffering, he clearly states who he is - the Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man (14:53-65). At that very moment, Peter is denying who he is as a disciple of Jesus (14:66-72). During the trial before Pilate, the crowd, which had welcomed him enthusiastically, now rejects him in favour of the murderer Barabbas (15:1-15). The governor hands him over for execution, even though he knows there is no real evidence against him.

Having been mocked as a pretender king, he is crucified outside the city, refusing a drug to relieve the pain (15:16-24). He is subjected to the mockery of passers-by, those crucified with him, and leaders who see this as their moment of triumph over him (15:27-32). He dies alone in an atmosphere of deep darkness, feeling forsaken even by the God in whom he trusted (15:33-37). There are signs, however, that God has not forsaken Jesus and his death has not been in vain. For those who can see it, the tearing of the Temple veil signals the end of the old order, and the confession of the centurion is a reminder of a missionary outreach to include Gentiles (15:38-39). While women disciples stay at a safe distance from the crucified Jesus, the Gentile centurion can look at a broken man on a cross and see him as the Son of God. He is the only person in Mark’s story to arrive at this insight, which was given to readers of the story in the first verse of the Gospel. Jesus’ identity cannot be fully understood apart from the cross.
Where do we find ourselves in the drama of the passion? Alongside the uncomprehending disciples who just cannot cope with a suffering Messiah, or with the centurion who glimpses the significance of the moment? If, in the drama of the passion in our own lives, we find we can more easily identify with the disciples, we must not overlook Jesus’ promise to meet fragile and failing disciples again in Galilee (14:28).

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