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Palm Sunday

15 March 2024

24 March, Liturgy of the Palms: Mark 11.1-11 (or John 12.12-16)

Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16 (or 31.9-18); Philippians 2.5-11; Mark 14.1-end of 15 (or Mark 15.1-39 (40-end))

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“SURELY, not I?” What could more blatantly expose the guilty consciences of the disciples as they shared the Passover meal with Jesus? NIV translates it pleadingly: “Surely you don’t mean me?”

The location was an upper room in Jerusalem. There, the dangers of their mission must have begun to dawn. Previously, they had been an insignificant local group. Now, they are in the holy city, site of the central Roman administration, residence of the Roman governor, abode of the chief priests and elders — Jesus’s implacable enemies.

It is hardly surprising that the disciples ask, “Surely, not I?” The fact that they ask at all hints that they have realised the possible consequences of their friend’s challenge to the religious and imperial authorities. Perhaps they already thought of deserting him, pictured themselves quietly melting into the faceless crowd. After all, not many hours later, they did exactly that (14.50).

The term, “the Son of Man” occurs four times in this passage (14.21 [twice], 41, 62), with its usual overtone of a role description, or title. Some commentators downplay its distinctiveness, drawing attention to Ezekiel’s habitual use of “son of man” (without the definite article) as a synonym for “human being”. Others go further, arguing that Jesus used the term to refer not to himself, but to the coming of another being who would carry the hopes of the Kingdom with him.

Against such scepticism, I suggest that, if the article “the” is present (“the Son of Man”), it is safe to say that Jesus is speaking about himself. All but two of the examples in the New Testament (and there are more than 70 such) come from the Gospels. Always used in direct speech by Jesus, the term embraces two ideas: first, that by being human he is subject to death; and, second, that, through his death and beyond it, God will vindicate him. Beyond this lies a greater significance that resists interpretation in mere words.

Palm Sunday is a good time to investigate what Jesus means by calling himself the Son of Man; for this is when the meaning of Jesus’s life as a human individual shades into what we sometimes call the “Christ-event” — a shift, in other words, between Jesus, son of Joseph, and Christ, the eternal Word. Only when this shift takes place can we begin to ask one of the deep questions of Passiontide: what does Jesus’s suffering and death say about him; and how can it speak to us, beyond the pathos that marks the suffering or death of any other human being?

Our answer comes with the fulfilment of the story of “the Son of Man”. Way back in Mark’s Gospel, people had responded to Jesus’s teaching by asking one another, “Where did this man get all this?” (6.2). They have seen nothing in his background, upbringing, education, or work life to mark him out as different. And yet, after his baptism, his life seems to burst its ordinary human bounds. He calls, communicates, and cures. He guides, challenges, and inspires, in ways that are utterly overwhelming. Jesus teaches about God like one who knows him fully and is at home in his presence.

The word that we give to the search for an answer to that long-ago question (“Where did this man get all this?”) is “Christology”. By uniting present subjection to death with future vindication by God, “the Son of Man” shows us the way to follow. All through the following years, Christians juggled scriptures and creeds, councils and canons, to try and pin down the meaning of Christ’s Passion. They excluded misguided versions, and they defined verbal approximations to the truth.

But they could not — cannot — define the Son of Man in a way that communicates the gruelling experience of worshipping through Holy Week. We are battered by waves of empathy and pathos; by the challenge to look within and find traces of Peter and Judas in our own denials and betrayals. The spiritual and emotional tsunami builds towards Maundy Thursday, right up to the moment when the disciples desert Jesus and flee.

Then, we wait: first, for the crucifixion to happen; then, for it to end. Finally, we wait for the tomb in which he was laid to be found empty, so that death can bring us to life once more, beside our friend and brother: beside the Son of Man.

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