Palm Sunday

23 March 2018

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Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11.1-11; Psalm 118.1-2,19-end

Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Mark 14.1-end of 15

JESUS has set his face towards Jerusalem and what he knows will be a painful and humiliating death. Our first Gospel reading shows his careful planning of the events that provoke his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

It begins with his giving of detailed instructions to the disciples, to prepare for the procession into the city. Jesus’s entry both recalls and subverts the military entry of the triumphant Simon Maccabaeus into Jerusalem in 141 BC, “with praise and palm branches . . . and with hymns and songs” (1 Maccabees 13.51). It is “filled with conflicting signals, as if it intends to be a satire on military liberators” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus).

On entry into the city, Jesus does not storm the Roman garrison or Herod’s palace. At the end of the procession, Mark tells us that Jesus goes into the Temple, and, “when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany.” He is carefully weighing and planning his next action.

Between the two Gospel passages read on Palm Sunday, the mood of the liturgy changes dramatically. It is impossible to understand this without some reference to the intervening events. Far from driving out the Roman occupiers at the head of the assembled crowd, Jesus goes on to cleanse the Temple. This is not an act of impulsive rage, but, once again, something that he has planned.

Our second Gospel begins with the anointing of Jesus by an unnamed woman at Bethany. Her action is contrasted with the reaction of Jesus’s disciples — just as Mark juxtaposes their abandonment of Jesus with the faithfulness of the women at the cross.

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The anonymous woman has anointed Jesus’s body for burial. Then, when back in Jerusalem, he prefigures and interprets his death at the Last Supper. As James Alison observes, Jesus “hands himself over to the disciples in the form of the eucharist” before he is both “handed over by Judas” to the religious leaders and then “handed over by the high priest to the Romans for execution” (Raising Abel).

These scenes contain all the political and religious actors in occupied Palestine. As Myers notes, “The Roman and Jewish authorities are there; so is the rebel leader; the ‘crowds’ represent the popular masses. Jesus is there alone, abandoned by his community.” In the person of Pilate, the Empire shows truth to be of less concern than its maintenance of power. And, in the torture meted out by their soldiers, the Romans reveal their casual contempt for the people under occupation.

In the violence of the Zealots and Romans, the self-serving hypocrisy of the religious elites, and the fury of the crowd, the characters in this narrative are echoed in every era of human history. It is Jesus’s failure to lead an insurrection rather than his cleansing of the Temple which seems to have enraged the crowd. Their cry of “Crucify him!” speaks of hopes raised and disappointed.

Mark tells us that Barabbas (whom they ask to be released in Jesus’s stead) is “in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection”. In Myers’s words, Jesus and Barabbas represent “fundamentally different kinds of revolutionary practice”. Insurrection simply replaces one violent regime with another. The Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus involves a more fundamental transformation — eschewing violence and domination — but it is one that the angry crowd rejects.

The astonishing claim of the Passion story is that God is present here, in the sacrificial victim: in Jesus, who has allowed himself to be handed over to death, and now willingly assumes the cross. When the scribes and priests mock Jesus saying, “He saved others, he cannot save himself,” they unwittingly take us close to the heart of the mystery. The incarnate God refuses to save himself, that he might save the world.

In his cry of abandonment on the cross, Jesus is freely taking on himself the sin and suffering of that world. It is a moment of accomplishment, not of failure. In the words of St Augustine, Jesus “came forth to humanity when he wished it. He lived in history as long as he wished it. He departed from the flesh when he wished it. This is a sign of power, not of necessity.”

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