Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Bernard Jean Delcourt, OHC
Palm Sunday B – Sunday, March 29, 2015
Mark 11:1-11 Philippians 2:5-11 Mark 14:1-15:47
|An alabaster jar to hold perfumed balms|
But for today, we heard of the passing glory of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey and we dwelt on some of the events preceding and leading to his passion on the cross.
Throughout this Holy Week, we’ll be invited to remember what Jesus did for the love of God and the love of us, his followers.
I offer you two suggestions for you to consider in your meditations this week:
- First, Jesus’ utter humility
- And second, the women who supported Jesus’ ministry and surrounded him up to the time of his death.
In Mark’s telling of Jesus’ passion, both religious and political authorities collaborate, if uneasily, to get a rebel executed. In the eyes of the religious authorities, Jesus is guilty of identifying himself too closely with God.
In the eyes of the political authorities, Jesus is a troublemaker who has claims to kingship over the Jews. These claims are enough to make Pilate condescend in the end to the religious authorities’ request that Jesus be executed. Despite his doubts, he doesn’t want to be seen as the governor who’s soft on enemies of the state (whether averred or suspected).
Due process was important to Romans when they prosecuted one of their own. It had little importance when they prosecuted subjects of a far-flung province of the empire.
In having Jesus identified as an enemy of the Roman state, by allegedly claiming that Jesus wants kingship over the Jews, the religious authorities get Pilate to endorse their plan for an execution.
No matter whom it came from, Romans took political opposition to the state seriously and made sure that a gruesome example was made of whomever dared to challenge the state. It was important for the Romans to make a public display of how political opponents were treated. The opponent would be made utterly helpless, would be made to suffer gruesomely and would be completely humiliated.
Crucifixion victims were often first vigorously flogged with whips that included pieces of rock or metal in order to cause deep wounds and extensive bleeding. Many victims would already be in a state of shock by the time the flogging was over. By then, some would be unable to carry their cross to the place of their execution.
At the place of crucifixion, the victim would be stripped of all clothing and nailed naked to the cross for maximum humiliation. Once hung from the cross, death would come painfully and slowly in a state of radical helplessness. As Bart Ehrman puts it, crucifixion for the Romans was a symbolic statement that WE are Roman power and YOU are nothing.
I won’t dwell in any more details on how horrible and humiliating a death this was. But it is important for us Christians to realize how utterly awful and desolating this would be for the victim and for the victim’s loved ones. Christian glorification of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross can tend to make us overlook the humiliation, the pain and the complete helplessness of such a death.
Jesus and his contemporaries would have known of crucifixion. They would have witnessed it themselves, probably a few times. Crucifixion was not uncommon and the Romans intended it to be a spectacle for all to see of what happened to those who crossed Rome. They did want the populace to witness what happened to those who were crucified.
So when the gospel tells us of how Jesus predicted his death on the cross and yet deliberately journeyed towards Jerusalem anyway, we are not speaking of death as a remote and abstract concept. Jesus also knew the gory specifics of what risk he was exposing himself to.
Nonetheless, Jesus decided to continue his announcing the good news of the Kingdom of God well into the domain of his known adversaries, well into Judea and Jerusalem. He considered his peaceful message of announcing the good news important enough to not skirt the risk of a painful and humiliating end.
Mark‘s account of Jesus’ passion shows us extreme humility. Despite his being one with God, Jesus chose to embrace his humanity fully and regardless of the cost in obedience to God’s will. Jesus tried to ask for God’s help to keep his martyrdom away if that was God’s will. The prayers of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane tell us that Jesus fully understood what awaited for him and yet fully trusted God’s will for him to be what he needed to embrace. And what Jesus willingly embraces was the fullness of human suffering up to and including death.
It is this type of humility that we are called to in our own lives. Luckily we are faced with less trying circumstances for most of us, most of the time. But we are called to discern God’s call and answer it even when it displeases or frightens us. We are to pray for the strength to accept God’s will. We can particularly pray to Jesus for such prayer. We can draw strength from the type of humility Jesus models for us throughout the events of the last week of his life. It is a costly humility, no doubt. But humility is part of our call.
And in parallel to Jesus’ absolute humility and abandon to God’s will, I ask you to consider the complete commitment of female disciples to accompany his life, ministry and death.
Because of the prevalent biases of those who wrote the New Testament, we have only glimpses of how women were involved in Jesus’ ministry and life, and they often go unnamed. Mark tells us there were many women at the crucifixion even though he names but three of them.
In Mark’s gospel, the account of Jesus’ passion is preceded by the episode of a woman who comes in the Bethany house where Jesus stays and anoints his head with a jarful of costly ointment. It is a gesture of adoration and abandonment to love. And Jesus himself commends this woman for having anointed his body for burial. He understands what’s upcoming for him and sees the loving beauty of the woman’s gesture.
In Mark’s gospel, after the crucifixion, Jesus’ body is precipitously wrapped in a linen cloth and buried, probably just in time for sundown and the beginning of sabbath. There is no time to wash and anoint his body before the sabbath.
But Mark’s readers remember that a loving female disciple anointed Jesus for burial beforehand. She is to be remembered for her love and her uncanny intuition of what was right and meet to do for her rabbi.
In contrast, the crucifixion is a time of utter helplessness and dereliction for Jesus. Did he perceive the presence of his female disciples at a safe distance from the haggling and torment of the crowd and the soldiers? I hope so.
In any case, those women disciples were the only loved ones who were near. Can you imagine their courage in braving the opprobrium heaped on an enemy of the state at the time of his shameful death? They were Jesus’ only human support though his agony. They knew what was right and meet to do for their rabbi and they dared to do it.
These women question me. Am I willing to do what it takes to abandon myself fully to the love and the will of God? Jesus did it and these women kept following him to the bitter end. Do I have that courage and that stamina?
In this most Holy Week, I invite you to keep at heart Jesus’ utter humility and the women’s indomitable courage and perseverance in the love of God. Have a blessed Holy Week.