The Sunday of the Passion
Mark 14:1 -- 15:47
Disintegration and Reintegration
Today's reading is the longest assigned reading that we have the entire year. Many churches break the reading up into several parts, assigning individuals and groups to particular lines and sections. Perhaps we do this so we can keep the interest of the listener. Perhaps we do this so we can engage the drama of the reading. It seems to me the reason we have such a long reading today is because we have come to come the heart and center of our faith. We need to hear the whole story. We need to be reminded not in part but completely of the grace and mercy and sacrifice, the passion and suffering which is our Lord's.
When we read this entire passage found in Mark's Gospel we meet a number of people. Right before our eyes we watch almost every one of them coming apart at the seams, disintegrating before us. The painful passage, the many verses that we are encountering today point to a picture of human frailty, a picture of human weakness, an essay portraying a lack of loyalty as well as the human ability for betrayal.
We begin in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. We hear of a woman who broke open a jar of very costly ointment who then poured the contents upon our Lord's head. This action is one of generosity and compassion but the response of some of those gathered gives us the first picture in today's reading of selfishness and of a lack of grace within those who are gathered with our Lord at the feast. Putting ourselves in this scene we discover an intensity of feelings and it's hard to understand why this compassionate action has elicited such deep anger. "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than 300 denarii , and the money given to the poor." The text says, "And they scolded her." Can you imagine having been given a loving and generous gift by someone who cared deeply for you only to have that gift and the giver insulted because of their generosity? The gall of those who gathered there with Jesus is astounding. Who do they think they are seeking to control what is given and received by our Lord. If our Lord thought the gift was too much then it would have been his right and business to steer the giver in a different direction. But Jesus, aware of the moment and the unfolding events that lay in front of him receives the gift with deepest gratitude. He is the one who then scolds the critics, because they have missed the point of that moment. Even though they have been told of the imminent death that Jesus will be facing, they continue to remain blind to their lord, to the environment which is crashing in upon them and most of all they are blind to grace. "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.... She has done what she could; she has anointed my body before hand for its burial..." they think they are righteous in their defense of the poor and in doing so they miss the deeper moment losing sight of Jesus. In their pride, in their self-righteousness, they are seeking to control the Lord and this causes them to unravel and to receive a rebuke from their savior.
The next encounter is at another meal. Mark takes us to the upper room. First we have the marvelous story of two disciples living in obedience to their Lord. They are given simple instructions that they will meet a man who was carrying a jar of water, they are to follow him, and when they discover where he lives they are to ask him a question from the teacher. One wonders how this was all set up ahead of time. Did Jesus at some time in his ministry meet a man whom he would call upon later for this favor? Was there something in the encounter between the disciples and the man that was so unusual that he simply knew intuitively that this was the right thing to do? Perhaps the man had had a dream that he would be encountered by disciples and told that the Lord, the Messiah, the teacher would come to his guest room where he would have the Passover meal with his disciples. It's one of those mystical unexplained moments that we encounter every now and then in the Gospel text. Most of us, as we reflect upon our own lives can remember moments like these, points of knowing, intuitions, a sense of where we are and where God is, what to do and what is important.
Behind the scenes there is a darker current that is flowing as the meal is being prepared. As the two disciples discover the place for the Passover meal, Judas Iscariot was preparing to betray Jesus. As we read this story we cannot help but feel the deep sadness which is flowing below the surface. This is not a normal Passover meal that Jesus will share with his disciples, these are last moments. These are the moments when one shares from the heart. These are the moments not unlike those moments when a family comes together with one who is dying, and the one who is dying has a last opportunity to share his or her wisdom with those gathered. The wisdom that our Lord shares is a gift that is designed to sustain the disciples, he seeks to give them a way to come into his continuing presence. It is a gift that the Church has steadfastly held on to and received ever since the gift was given in the upper room. The gift is his body and blood. The Passover feast takes a whole new meaning, rather than being a feast that reminds the participant of the journey from Egypt, the journey of slavery to freedom, here a new meaning is given. Perhaps the journey remains a journey from slavery to freedom but the freedom now is a freedom to participate in an intimate and present relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. We are invited to eat the bread and to drink the cup as a way of participating in the fullness of our Lord. The four actions that are present in the upper room remain present in the continuing celebrations of Holy Communion.
The first action is to take. Our Lord takes the bread as a symbol of life. We are invited to take the bread of our Lord's presence as a sign of receiving the fullness of God. After our Lord takes the bread the second action is to bless. Jesus blesses the bread. The bread that we receive at Communion is blessed with his presence. The third action is to break. Our Lord breaks the bread and each time the bread is broken during our communions it reminds us that there is a wideness in God's mercy. It is the brokenness of our Lord that makes room for us to be saved. It is through his brokenness, his body stretched out and nailed, bloody upon a cross that creates room for our broken and sinful nature to be received by him. And the fourth action is to eat. We are to eat the bread that is blessed and broken. In eating we are invited to take the depth of our Lord's gift, the fullness of his sacrifice, the completeness of his presence and take it into the depth of our being. Our Lord gives us a way of staying intimately connected to him through this holy meal. It seems to me it doesn't matter if we are Catholic or Protestant if we believe the meal is a remembrance or a participation in the real presence of our Lord at that moment. Either way it seems to me that those of us who receive the bread and drink the cup are accepting a gift and wisdom from Jesus.
From here we go to another place of human vulnerability and failure. From the upper room we move to Gethsemane. Jesus speaks to the disciples of their coming failure. He warns them of what they are about to face. Peter, so full of courage and pride refuses to believe that it is possible for him in the strength of his humanness to turn away from his Lord. He flatly denies that possibility and Jesus knows only too well that Peter will be haunted by his behavior and his denial that is only a few hours away. The rest of the disciples also refuse to believe that they will turn away from their Lord. A few of them go into the garden and our Lord asks them to simply stay awake, to watch and pray with him for a few hours. But once again the frailty of their humanness shines forth and they fail to comfort their Lord with their wakeful presence. As we take this walk through the garden of human failure we are likely confronted with our own broken promises. Jesus finds his disciples asleep and rather than admitting their failure they seem to want to deny it. Perhaps they still can't believe that their Lord is about to be betrayed. Perhaps they still can't get their life around the intensity of these moments. Whatever the reason for their failure, upon reflection they will look back at these moments and feel deep grief that they could not stay awake and support their Lord and their friend. Jesus is clearly disappointed with them and their sleepiness.
Out of the darkness Judas arrives. With him are others, a crowd carrying swords and clubs. Judas one of the inner circle, one of the 12, betrays his Lord with a kiss. A sign of affection becomes distorted by this action. Judas’ denial unlike Peter’s and the rest of the 12 is calculated. One can only begin to imagine the depth of horror that our Lord must have felt when he saw this disciple turned against him with such violence. For Judas to gather with a band, a crowd of people carrying clubs and swords must have been beyond imagining to Jesus. Had anything our Lord said or done made a difference in this disciple's life? How easy it was for him to return to his old zealot ways. And yet all the disciples would betray him. Not only would they deny him but they would scatter from him.
The horrifying drama continues as Jesus is brought before the high priest, and Judaism which has been described as the best religious system in the world at that time was found more than flawed, it was found unjust, unkind, merciless and self-serving. Shortly after being judged by a failed religious system our Lord comes before Roman justice. Roman justice at Jesus time was the admired governmental system of the world and once again this human system fails our Lord. Jesus’ Authority is above the religions of the world and above the governments of the world, neither he can give him justice. Pontius Pilate does make an attempt at mercy but his own weakness and need for the approval of the crowd causes him to go against what he knows is right. Both systems, religious and governmental make the choice to kill an innocent man. Jesus is brutalized by his accusers and finally he is crucified, put to death on the hardwood of a Roman cross on a Jewish hillside.
Looking deeply in this passage we will find a few glimmers of hope for our humanness. "Peter does, after all, risk himself to be in Caiaphas House. Pilot does have the grace to show sympathy, even if he lacks integrity. Judas at least faces the friend he has betrayed. The Roman Centurion discerns a glory underneath the filth and grime of the prisoner. But we have to dig deep for these redeeming glimpses of our nature." (A time for good news reflections on the Gospel for people on the go. By Herbert O'Driscoll)
We are invited to bring all of our humanness to God as we live and walk as Christians this holy week. The disciples kept falling asleep repeatedly, Jesus didn't disown them. Let us bring to Jesus our halfhearted attempts and failures at our Lenten disciplines. Peter rushed to defend Jesus, cutting off a man's ear in the process. Jesus did not disown him. Bring to Jesus all your impetuous desires to be holy and right and to defend the truth. It is all there in the story -- the highest, the noblest in humankind, the basist, the willingness to compromise and betray, and the mediocre -- those doing their job, those getting a laugh out of the pitiful situation, those wondering and gossiping. Bring to Jesus all that you are in your humanness -- your nobility, your baseness, your mediocrity, and then realize that all of that has nothing at all to do with God's mighty act at the cross and at the empty tomb. What is the cross but God's judgment upon all human efforts? The best and the worst of humankind abandoned Jesus on the cross, but thank God, Jesus did not abandon us. He did not come down from the cross and save himself. He hung there in the flesh taking upon himself all the judgment that all our human efforts have deserved and he gave back life in his broken body and poured out blood. That is God's mighty act and nothing we do this week or this lifetime can add or detract from it. We in our pride think that either we are so devout and pious that we deserve Jesus love or else, more commonly, we think that we are so bad that Jesus could never really accept us. Both extremes are easy to fall into, and especially during holy week. So bring that pride, too, along with all that is noble, base, and just plain mediocre and come to Jesus this week. Come participate in the greatest and oldest liturgy of the church, knowing that it is not our actions, but God's mighty act on the cross that we celebrate.
"If we wish to see the glory of our humanity in ultimate love, courage, integrity, and self-sacrifice, then we look upward to the cross and the prisoner. That is what we are called to be in spite of what we are." (Herbert O'Driscoll)