Recent articles have described St. Mark’s version of the Gospel as “a Passion account with an extended introduction.” One reference came from Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household and the other came from the lectors’ workbook published by Chicago’s Liturgy Training Program. With such diverse observers sharing the same perspective on St. Mark’s brief Gospel account, a closer look at the Passion of Christ according to St. Mark, which forms this coming Palm Sunday’s lengthy Gospel reading, is clearly in order.
Unlike St. Matthew and St. Luke, St. Mark relates neither of the joyous Nativity narratives that make the birth of Christ so appealing and so endearing. Nor does St. Mark soar to heavenly heights like St. John in his celebrated prologue. Rather St. Mark opens his account matter-of-factly by having the Baptist announce the arrival of the Messiah, then describing Jesus’ baptism, briefly relating Christ’s temptation and commencing the Galilean ministry by the call of the first disciples. Immediately Jesus takes on the powers of evil. He confronts an unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum and he cleanses a leper that encounters him in the street. Jesus’ good deeds do not go unnoticed by the Scribes and Pharisees. “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” It could be said that Jesus’ Passion begins right here with the misunderstanding and envy of the religious leaders. Fearlessly Jesus adds to their aggravation by eating with sinners and tax-collectors after the call of Matthew. He is too casual about fasting, about Sabbath observance and about pious traditions continuing to draw more criticism. His hometown of Nazareth was no more receptive to him than the elders. “So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” Even his family thought that “he is out of his mind.” The death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod added even more chill to Jesus’ public life. Jesus knew that the powers to be, both religious and civil, were unreceptive to him.
Even Jesus’ success with his select disciples was limited. Jesus clearly predicts his Passion to St. Peter and the other Eleven on three different occasions. Yet his message does not penetrate: “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Public opposition, general misunderstanding, and limited comprehension were the sad results of Jesus’ three years of public life. Of course he did work fine miracles, performed admirable healings, taught eloquently and displayed great zeal. But seemingly it all came to naught. “The chief priests and the scribes were seeking a way to arrest him by treachery and put him to death.”
St. Mark’s actual Passion account, his chapters 14 and 15, is a litany of deceit, betrayal, mockery and cruelty. Consider the barest outline: delivered up by Judas, agonizing in the garden, arrested by a mob, dragged before the Sanhedrin, denied by St. Peter, humiliated before Pilate, mocked by the soldiers, burdened with the Cross, crucified in public, died a lingering death and buried in a borrowed tomb.
Can there be any hesitation or confusion when Jesus sums up the Christian life in these memorable words: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” The world that opposed Jesus, the world that misunderstood Jesus, the world that crucified Jesus is the same world inhabited by the Christians of the twenty-first century. Jesus persevered with an often unpopular and often misunderstood and often outright rejected message. As Holy Week begins, our contemporary Church should sadly remind itself that it can expect no different a reception than that accorded its Master.