It feels very peculiar to be concentrating on the Passion a week before it happens! But then, many people move directly from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, missing out the passion itself! It’s therefore very much a case of what to put in and what to leave out – particularly given the weight and size of the Lectionary readings for the Liturgy of the Passion. I want, therefore, to do nothing more than to highlight some of the issues that leap out at me as I read Mark’s account of the Passion, and which seem to me worth stressing to someone who will otherwise miss out on this crucial (a quite deliberate pun!) section of the gospel narrative. It is, after all, the crunch – what it is all about.
Mark has brought us at incredible pace to the outskirts of Jerusalem. The pace alone tells us how determinedly he has headed to this point. Interestingly, it is only once we are “at the city gates” that Mark slows the narrative pace, concentrating on the passage of time. There is a sense in which the entire gospel has been on “fast forward” as he whips through the lead-up that brings us to the events of Holy Week. Now he lets go of the button, and the story is allowed to proceed slowly enough for the readers to take in every moment of the unfolding drama.
Messianic anointing at Bethany (14: 3-9)
This is a strange passage in several ways – not least because of what it includes (Simon’s name, that he was a leper, the monetary value of the ointment) and what it leaves out (the silence on the woman’s name is positively deafening). This is extraordinarily ironic: the woman who will be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world and in all time is anonymous! Wouldn’t it be good to know who she was? And is it surprising that it is a woman who is so strikingly “forgotten” even as she is remembered? This is the significance of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s book, In Memory of Her.
What is it about what she does that is so “memorable”? Jesus is doing more than saying, “This is a very striking incident that ought not to be forgotten”. He is holding the woman up as a paradigm of discipleship. Remember that the second half of Mark’s gospel is about the Way of the Cross, and the deep resistance of the disciples to it. The point here is that the woman – unlike the disciples and Peter in particular – accepts that Jesus is facing the cross. She does not try to dissuade him from the path, but prepares him for it. In effect, she says, “I am doing what I can to walk this road with you”. It is costly ointment because the road ahead for Jesus is costly.
Sell-outs and signals: life in the shadows
The authorities have been conspiring to kill Jesus ever since 3:6. As the Passover approaches, Mark resumes the conspiracy narrative. Judas’ actions and the elaborate preparations for the Passover (14: 12-15) are puzzling at first sight. Why do the authorities need a traitor? Why not simply seize Jesus? And why the emphasis on the Passover preparations that have led many commentators to see this as some sort of miraculous foreknowledge that Jesus has about what the “two disciples” will find in the city?
These begin to make perfect sense when we recognise that Jesus and the disciples have gone underground. Jesus is planning his “Jerusalem campaign” strategically. Bethany is a safe haven for the group, which is being hunted by the authorities. Jesus has been careful to date: his appearances in the city have been deliberately public, in the Temple, where it would have been difficult to seize him without provoking a riot. Mark paints a picture of a volatile situation that both makes it difficult for the authorities to move openly against Jesus and makes it necessary for Jesus to be very circumspect.
They are in Bethany in secret. If the authorities are to take him at a time of their choosing (preferably at night), they will need to know the group’s movements. They need someone on the inside who is prepared to keep them informed – and that person is Judas. Judas initiates the betrayal: he goes to the chief priests and agrees to betray Jesus for the promise of money. Mark doesn’t invoke any theory of satanic inspiration for Judas’ actions: it is straightforward, grubby money-grabbing. And so Judas begins to look for an opportunity to deliver Jesus to the authorities at time when he can be taken without fear of a riot. That means that he needs to find a time when they are in the city (rather than at Bethany) or close enough for the authorities to get together an arresting party at short notice. And it needs to be at a time that will enable them to act without being observed by the people – ideally, therefore, at night.
It will be the Passover that provides the opportunity. Jesus and his disciples will have to go into the city. This is highly dangerous, as Jesus well knows. Clearly, there was an anonymous group of sympathisers, living in the city and linked to Jesus and his group. Jesus makes arrangements with them to have a private room in which to celebrate the Feast with his disciples. The logistics are worked out carefully. Two disciples are to go into the city. Two men are hardly likely to attract the attention that Jesus and his band would if they went in en masse. There is an agreed signal: a man carrying a water jar. That’s the contact. Carrying a water jar is normally women’s work. It’s a clever signal – unusual enough to be unmistakeable and noticeable, but not so unusual as to be conspicuous or arouse suspicion. The two are instructed not to talk to him, but simply to follow at a distance. The contact will lead them to the house. The two are to wait until he’s gone in, then knock, and give the owner the agreed code (v14). Jesus has already had word that this man is able to provide them with a large, unfurnished room upstairs that they can use. The two disciples are instructed to prepare the unfurnished room, and then return to Bethany to lead the group secretly into the city under the cover of darkness. Wonderful cloak-and-dagger stuff – yet terrible, terrifying and deadly.
Betrayal and covenant
When we realise just what is at stake, and just how careful Jesus is having to be, we begin to take on board just how callous and cynical Judas’ betrayal is. It doesn’t matter how elaborate the precautions are that Jesus takes to ensure the group’s safety: there is a traitor in their midst. They are doomed. We – the audience – know this. And so does Jesus.
Small wonder, then, that the opening words recorded in Mark’s gospel are words of sorrow and accusation: “One of you will betray me!” The disciples are probably just beginning to relax, and believe that everything has gone safely according to plan. Jesus’ words are a bombshell, and they “begin to be distressed”, as Mark puts it. This is the closest Mark comes to English understatement! They would have been shocked, frightened and devastated. It can’t be true! The pressure must be getting to Jesus – he’s losing the plot. After all, if he only stopped and thought about what he was saying – even for a second – he’d realise just how ridiculous it sounded. They begin to relax, having convinced themselves that it’s all down to stress. So Jesus speaks again. “Yes, I do know what I’m implying. So let me tell you straight. I’m not talking about one of our friends from around here, who has helped us thus far. I’m talking about you – the people in this room. It is one of the Twelve – however unbelievable you find that!”
One question that arises is, given Jesus’ antipathy to the Temple and its compromised cult, why does he bother with the Feast – particularly in view of the dangers associated with being in the city itself? The answer lies in what Jesus will do at the Passover. This is to be the New Covenant. Here is a word of hope and promise. Until now, he has told the disciples only that he will be handed over, will suffer horribly, will be killed and will rise again. Now he promises them that it is not in vain. This has a purpose: his death is for others.
We talk glibly about the “new covenant” as a covenant of grace. Yet it is when we listen to the words of institution, prefaced by “On the night in which he was betrayed …” and realise the sick despair that Jesus must have been feeling as he sat at the meal, that we begin to appreciate what “grace” means. It means Jesus facing the fact that one of his hand-picked friends, with whom he had shared his life and hopes and dreams, had callously and deliberately decided to betray him. And Jesus knew that this was the night. He knew, too, that his best efforts to convince the disciples about the Way of the Cross had failed. They would all desert him before the night was out. If his criterion for true discipleship was “denying themselves, taking up the cross and following”, then none of the Twelve was actually going to make the grade. Everything that Jesus has worked for is about to be smashed beyond any hope of repair.
Looking all this fully in the face, Jesus’ response is to promise them a future. It is a future based on what he will do alone. It is a New Covenant based not on their faithfulness but on Jesus’ faithfulness. It is the promise of fellowship, given to traitors and deserters. Even though Peter will deny three times that he ever even knew who Jesus was (another sign of the intense threat facing the community), Jesus will never deny him.
Gethsemane: torment and terror
As the group (now minus Judas) leaves the upper room to return to the safety of the countryside, Jesus knows that it is too late. They have been betrayed. Escape is impossible. Jesus must face the cross. Typically – and unsurprisingly – he chooses to spend the short time he has left in prayer. But this is a startlingly atypical “Jesus-in-prayer” scene. Mark’s account of Gethsemane is deeply shocking. Something terrible and destructive is happening between Jesus and the God whom he calls Father. Several times in the gospel we find Jesus withdrawing at key points to be alone in prayer (cf 1:35, 6:46). He draws strength and encouragement from communing alone with his Father. Here in Gethsemane, Jesus is desperate not to be alone in God’s presence! He asks his friends to keep watch with him – because he is terrified. The language of 14:33 is very strong: he “shudders in distress” (ekthambeisthai) and “anguishes” (ademonein). Its force is difficult to covey adequately. The scholar Lohmeyer says, “The Greek words depict the utmost degree of unbounded horror and suffering”.
This is no reassuring time spent with God! Jesus throws himself to the ground, begging God like a child (“Abba, Father, please …”) to spare him what lies ahead (v36a). And he is answered with silence. Yes, Jesus could have refused to go through with it, and yes, Jesus responds by saying “Alright! If that’s the way you want to play it, I’ll do it” (v36b). Yet Mark wants us to understand that Jesus finds the silence of God appalling. God will not grant his request – and this is the reason for Jesus’ terror.
What is it that is so appalling? Clearly, there is deep dread at what lies ahead. Jesus would not be human if he didn’t fear it. Yet Jesus is no coward. There seems, in these verses, to be an altogether more terrifying prospect: the fear that he, the Son, the Beloved, who loved the Father as no one else has, could be ‘forsaken’. He will not refer again to God as “Abba”, but only formally as “God”. Jesus did not fear for his life. He feared for God. He experienced God’s silence as abandonment, and it tore his soul apart.
What did the cross mean for Jesus? We see it here, as he struggles in Gethsemane. But struggles with whom? It is more than his struggle with what lies ahead, more than his struggle with himself. Gethsemane is Jesus’ struggle with his experience of God – the death of the Father-Son relationship. This is his torment, and this is what he endures on the cross through his self-surrender.
The collapse of the discipleship narrative
This is a dark and depressing story. We are watching the unfolding disintegration of all that Jesus has been about. The tragedy is as inexorable as it is inevitable. Try and imagine what it must have been like for Jesus. He is utterly alone. The disciples have slept, completely impervious to his agony. They just will not “get it”. Jesus wakes them – literally and symbolically. As they struggle into wakefulness, still rubbing the sleep from their eyes, all hell breaks loose. An armed crowd arrives. They haven’t evaded their enemies. Then Judas steps forward from among the crowd – their Judas! – and kisses Jesus. There is an immediate scuffle. Jesus is taken. Terrified, the disciples scatter. Mark puts it starkly: “All of them deserted him and fled” (14:50).
A sign of hope
At this point, however, Mark introduces a tantalising mystery in the form of “a certain young man who was following” (v51). The armed crowd try to grab him as he runs off, catching hold of his clothing (a linen cloth). He tears away and flees into the night, naked, and leaving them holding the linen cloth.
This “young man” is a symbol. The cloth is the symbol of the cloth in which Joseph of Arimathea will wrap Jesus’ body for burial (cf 15: 46). The young man “reappears” at the resurrection, now wrapped in the white robe of the saints and martyrs (16: 5). He is the symbol of the promise of a renewed community of discipleship. He flees the Garden naked (symbolising shame) and is found “restored” in the tomb (symbolising the new community that is given birth through the resurrection).
At the hands of the powers: the double trial narrative
Jesus is tried twice. The accounts follow an identical structure: Jesus is questioned about the main charge against him; he doesn’t reply; he is pressed further and responds ambiguously: “Am I?”/”You said it!” Both hearings are then followed by some sort of consultation (between the high priest and the Sanhedrin, and between Pilate and the crowds). Each ends with a verdict, followed by mockery and torture.
Several scholars have suggested that Mark’s intention is to exonerate the Romans as far as possible, and to blame the Jewish authorities for the death of Jesus. The Sanhedrin, they point out, tries fair means and foul to obtain a conviction; Pilate, by contrast, tries to avoid condemning Jesus. He is well aware of the Sanhedrin’s determination to secure a conviction at any cost (15: 4), and tells the mob baying for Jesus’ blood that he has not done any evil to deserve crucifixion (15: 13).
However, the whole of Mark’s narrative has been structured to show the collusion between Rome and the Temple. Jesus’ ministry has been a constant challenge to both. His trial is the moment of confrontation with the very powers he has come to destroy – Imperial Rome and the Temple Purity Cult. Jesus is crucified as a messianic pretender and blasphemer: the truth is that he is the Messiah. He is crucified as a self-styled King of the Jews and political revolutionary: the truth is that Jesus is Lord and king.
Mark uses the mockery of the crowds to shout aloud the truth about Jesus. And nowhere is this to be seen more clearly than in the releasing of Barabbas. His name literally means “Son of the Father”. Jesus calls God “Abba”. The crowd call for the release of the “son of the father” and for the crucifixion of the true “Son of the Father”. We know this from 1:1 – Mark’s is the story of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. But this true Son of God is also the true revolutionary! His revolution is a different sort of revolution from the one Barabbas was part of. Jesus will die to bring about something more far-reaching than the kingdom of David. The revolution that Jesus is mounting is a one-man confrontation with powers, in the name of the Kingdom of God.
Seeing and believing
The mockery is no more pronounced than on the cross itself (15: 25ff). Mark is doing more than using narrative irony to proclaim who Jesus is, however. This is “the Messiah, the King of Israel” (v32). The mockery is both total and Mark’s point about the human “last word” on the Good News that Jesus preached and lived. Jesus is mocked by the passers-by, the chief priests and scribes, and the two bandits on either side of Jesus. Jesus is alone. The voice of God at his baptism and transfiguration is replaced and drowned out by the voices of mockery: “Everything you said and believed is rubbish! You thought you were so special! You thought you were God’s Son! You believed the Voice! Well, just look at you now!” Two things are happening. The first is that Mark is following his dramatic narrative formula of using irony to disclose truth. The chief priests will “see and believe” that he is the Messiah, the King of Israel, if he comes down. The ironic truth is that he is those because he chooses not to come down! Jesus is reaping the consequences of the “Your will be done!” choice he made in Gethsemane.
The second is that Jesus’ soul is being torn to pieces – because these voices make sense to him! Even though he hangs on (literally) and doesn’t turn back from the Way of the Cross, he does so in the face of the utter despair of being abandoned by God.
Golgotha: despair and death
There are no reassuring words from the mouth of Mark’s crucified Jesus. Jesus hangs on the cross in silent agony for three hours. He is utterly alone in his silence. He has been abandoned by his disciples: he is no longer the Master. He has been abandoned by his people: he is no longer a Jew. He has been abandoned to crucifixion: he is no longer regarded as human. And, at the moment of his death, he lifts his head to scream in despair, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
It is difficult to imagine how these words could have entered into Christian faith if they had never been uttered. Nor will it do to note that they are the opening words of Psalm 22, thereby making them less shocking and offensive. Psalm 22 ends up as a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from death. Placing the cry of abandonment in that wider context robs the words of their horror and offence, but it will not do. The popular notion that Jesus recited the psalm his dying moments, after three hours on a cross, is simply ridiculously implausible. And the whole point is that there was no deliverance from death on the cross! Jesus dies, utterly alone, calling to God, but in despair and accusation. He does not refer to God as Father, but quite formally as “God” – as though he had come to doubt what had been fundamental to his identity throughout: that he was the Son, Beloved of the Father.
Three responses to Jesus’ death
Traditionally, there are three “true disciples” – three non-mockers, who respond appropriately to the death of Jesus: the centurion, Joseph of Arimathea and the women. The centurion’s statement, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” is commonly taken as the climax of the gospel. He is the “ultimate witness” to the truth that Mark tells us at the outset of the narrative, and which is confirmed by the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. Joseph is the other, repentant “Nicodemus-type” figure – Jesus’ “friend at court” among the Sanhedrin, who fails to do enough while Jesus is alive but now, with his death, finds the courage he previously lacked and aligns himself with Jesus (see, for example, the way in which he is portrayed in The Greatest Story Ever Told). Both of these assessments need to be questioned.
The centurion: “Rome has triumphed over Jesus!”
This, at least, is Ched Myers’ contention. The centurion’s statement has frequently been questioned as an unambiguous confession of divinity. It could equally be a colloquialism – effectively saying, “This was a son of god (ie a human being)”. If so, we ought to read this as “This was (and is no more) a human being” – ie “This man is dead”. It is a formal declaration by the person responsible for overseeing the executions on Golgotha, and a declaration that Rome’s sentence and will have been carried out properly. That is precisely what we would expect of the man in his position. Moreover, the centurion then goes off to Pilate to report the successful completion of his mission (15: 44). If this is about an epiphany and conversion experience of a centurion who becomes a disciple, Mark is singularly silent about telling us so! There is no discernible change in the centurion – only an immediate return to his true Lord – Pilate! Pilate is wondering whether the power of Rome (Caesar) has “triumphed” over the “King of the Jews” (Jesus). The centurion’s role is to confirm that this is what has indeed happened. In other words, we are presented, not with a witness who is converted, but with one last instance of dramatic irony: the truth about Jesus is proclaimed by a hostile witness who does not know the import of what he is saying.
Joseph of Arimathea: “The Sanhedrin has defeated Jesus!”
Mark is at pains to tell us that Joseph is “a respected member of the council” – in other words, deeply complicit in Jesus’ death. He is “waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God”. The traditional view is that he is an exception to his brother councillors in this. Yet there is never any suggestion in the gospel that the problem the authorities had with Jesus was that he preached the Kingdom of God! They, too, were “expecting” it. Everyone was! The problem was the content Jesus gave to the Kingdom. The Sanhedrin had found this blasphemous. They had sought to have Jesus killed – and now he had been. An end had been put to that little blasphemy. It could be safely “buried”.
It was, indeed, a bold move to go to Pilate. But is the boldness occasioned by fear of Imperial opposition? Or is it rather a boldness that, under normal circumstances would be grossly impertinent, but, given the co-operation between the Sanhedrin and Rome in Jesus’ death, has, as its basis in this context, a shared common goal?
Myers suggests – extremely plausibly – that the Sanhedrin wished to clear the whole matter away as quickly as possible, presumably to minimise possible trouble when the whole matter became public. What better way than to have Jesus taken down and buried as hastily as possible? And what clearer statement could be given that this matter was finished and filed in the archives?
Rather than a mark of respect, in other words, we need to see Joseph as acting on behalf of the Sanhedrin to consolidate their victory over Jesus. Joseph does not tend to any of the traditional offices or rites of burial – a reason, in fact, for the women to have to return to the tomb. Joseph appears only to wrap Jesus (carelessly?) in the nearest thing to hand – a loincloth (itself a symbol of the disciples’ desertion) and almost toss his body into the tomb and shut it in order to get things done as quickly as possible. There is nothing that shows any sense of respect: quite the opposite, in fact. This, then, is a hurried burial – the final indignity.
Further weight is lent to this argument by Mark’s use of symbols. A key area of contention between Jesus and the Sanhedrin has been the conflict over Sabbath observance. Jesus has stood far too loose on this matter. He is, as we are told in 2:28, “Lord of the Sabbath”. In the end, the Sanhedrin has successfully seen off Jesus’ challenge to the symbolic order represented by Sabbath observance. The one who claimed to be “Lord of the Sabbath” is subjected to the ultimate insult: a hurried, improper entombment for the sake of the Sabbath order, lest Jesus’ dead body profane the Sabbath! Surely Mark is not unaware of the irony here: the Sanhedrin, in the name of God, has conspired to have Jesus murdered. Their hands are covered in his blood; their system of justice manipulated, shamed and in tatters. And now they are claiming the sort of purity-holiness that Jesus despised and decried by attending scrupulously to Sabbath observance – as though a dead body on the Sabbath were a greater profanity than Jesus’ execution!
The women – the true disciples
The women are the “lifeline” of the discipleship narrative. These are the women who have followed Jesus from the Galilee, and served him. They have followed to the foot of the cross, and now they follow to the grave. Like the woman at Bethany who anoints Jesus, the women have not deserted him and fled. Neither have they tried to avoid the cross. In both of these things – being servants and following all the way to the cross and beyond – they have done what the male disciples were incapable of doing.
And so, at the conclusion of the Passion, in the place of death and entombment, we find ourselves in the company of the women who will be the first witnesses to something utterly astounding – something that will change everything forever: resurrection!