by Br Julian McDonald cfc

At three o’clock, Jesus cried out in a loud voice: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabacthani?” which is translated: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 14 1 – 15 47)

In their Gospels, all four Evangelists give detailed accounts of the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’ earthly life. These accounts are generally referred to by Scripture scholars and commentators as “Passion narratives”. While these accounts are very much alike, there are variations in details and differences in the emphases given to some of the events that were part of what Jesus endured. The gospel-reading for Passion (Palm) Sunday this year is Mark’s Passion narrative consisting of all of chapters 14 and 15 of his Gospel. We will hear John’s Passion narrative in the liturgy of Good Friday. The distinctive characteristics of Mark’s account are its directness and starkness which serve to underline both the intensity of the brutality to which Jesus was subjected and the shocking fact that the support to which Jesus was entitled to expect from his closest followers was totally absent. Their earlier expressions and boasting of loyalty and promised support evaporated when they came to realise that their safety was under threat. Their action was to distance themselves from all physical and emotional connection with Jesus that others tried to pin to them. Mark recounts that one disciple was so intent on making himself scarce that he ran out of his clothes and sped away naked. No other Evangelist includes that detail. They all record how Peter’s protestations of loyalty turned to denials of any and all attachments to the leader whom he had previously identified as the Messiah. Moreover, unlike the other three Evangelists Mark makes no reference to the fact that Pilate knew that Jesus was truly innocent and had been framed by those who had plotted his demise. Mark saw Jesus as utterly abandoned, except for the fact that he was accompanied through his ordeal by a handful of women who, in the public arena, counted for nothing.
When we have long gospel-readings like the Passion narratives, we quite easily slip into the role of observers. Taking up the role of participant is more demanding and, in today’s gospel-reading, considerably less comfortable, because all of those with whom Jesus came into contact in the course of his passion reflect to us something of ourselves. Owning what is reflected is likely to be uncomfortable. But it is only by owning it that we will come to a deep appreciation of the love for us that was expressed in the suffering and death of Jesus.
While the brutality meted out to Jesus came from Roman soldiers who were mere pawns subject to leaders belonging to the chain of command which controlled their every action, we would be wide of the mark to contribute his crucifixion to the Romans. Jesus was no threat to the Romans. The soldiers who tortured him and nailed him to the cross could claim that they were only carrying out the orders of their commanders. Jesus was crucified by the convenient collaboration hastily organised by people in authority who were motivated by self-interest. An intransigent high priest, intent on preserving long-standing religious order and practice could not entertain change generated by the teaching of an uncredentialled, upstart “rabbi”, who was winning crowd approval. This religious leader was not going to risk losing status and position. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent but was too cowardly to stand up for integrity or act on principle. As governor, he knew he could lose the support of Rome if Jesus were to become an instrument of political unrest. And Judas was a minor player, disappointed with Jesus when he realised that he had no plans for acting as a Messiah for ousting the Romans who were oppressing his people. All three saw Jesus as expendable, and his life a small price to pay to protect their positions or, in Judas’ case, to look for a substitute who might provide better prospects of freedom from foreign oppression. The failure of these three players derived not from bloodthirsty intentions but from practices that have prevailed in the world of corrupt business and politics throughout history. But it has not been limited to those arenas! Which of us has not been guilty of actions motivated by cowardice, fear, disinterest, prejudice or self-interest at some time or other? Which of us has not in some way contributed to the emotional torture or metaphorical crucifixion of another by a denial of justice or a failure to act with integrity or compassion?
In this Passion narrative from Mark there is a reminder to us of the cost of resisting groups, large and small, that try to pressure us into compromising our integrity. Even in families we can lose popularity and approval when doing what is right is frowned upon.
By staying close to Jesus throughout his entire ordeal the women who were not accredited with the title of disciples were the ones who paradoxically demonstrated true discipleship through their invaluable ministry of presence. Ironically, in the wake of all the fear, confusion, personal failure and human weakness of those close to Jesus and Pilate’s caving in to the crowd’s demands, it was a Roman centurion, and a Gentile to boot, who had the courage to publicly proclaim that he had witnessed the execution of a man he had come to conclude “was, indeed, the Son of God”.
Maintaining our allegiance to Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God comes at a cost. However, that’s the price of genuine discipleship. We have to decide if we are prepared to pay it.