The late Rudolph Bultmann often remarked, "A Gospel is simply a Passion/Resurrection narrative with a dozen or more introductory chapters." That means today's Gospel pericope is the first part of the most important passage in Mark's Gospel. Yet, because of this particular day's ceremonies and time limits, we rarely hear a homily of any suitable length on it. And when we actually think about Jesus' suffering and death, we're frequently reflecting on the 14 Stations of the Cross, not on the four Gospel Passion narratives.
|Passion (Palm) Sunday|
Today, of all days, we should forget the Stations and concentrate on what our Gospels have to say about what and why Jesus suffers.
To begin with, we shouldn't put things into the Passion narratives that aren't there. For instance, in today's Marcan account, there's almost no mention of Jesus' physical suffering. Everything this first evangelist says about Jesus' bodily pain can be put into one small, three- or four-sentence paragraph. Like Matthew, Luke and John, he doesn't even mention that Jesus was nailed to the cross. (That only comes up implicitly in John 20.) Each simply tells us, "They crucified him." If they were interested in stressing Jesus' physical pain, they really blew it.
Though Mark knew it would be exceptional for any of Jesus' followers to suffer and die physically as he did, he believed each of those disciples could imitate his psychological suffering. But they would first have to acquire the frame of mind that gave this Galilean carpenter the strength to endure such mental pain and stress.
At least 10 years before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul was also convinced that in order to be "another Christ" one had to have the mentality of Christ. That's why he included this oft-quoted "emptying" hymn in today's Philippians pericope.
Though, like all humans, Jesus was created in the image and likeness of God, "he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped." On the contrary, he "emptied" himself of anything that even resembled divinity. He actually "took the form of a slave," identifying with the lowest class of humans. He completely immersed himself into his humanity.
Mark's Passion narrative supplies us with multiple examples of that immersion -- examples that are the source of most of the narrative's suffering. Jesus' mindset is always geared to surfacing and responding to the needs of others.
Today's narrative begins, for instance, with his defense of a woman who didn't do what some of his disciples thought was the "appropriate" way to honor him -- by selling the perfumed oil she was pouring over his body and giving the money to the poor. He counters their objections with a firm, "Leave her alone! ... She has done what she could." In Jesus' mind, someone's intentions always trump another person's interpretation of those intentions.
That seems to be why he's willing to suffer even when no one appears to appreciate that suffering. His disciples fall asleep when he's going through his garden agony and quickly desert him when the authorities, led by one of his closest friends, finally arrive. (One runs away so fast he leaves his clothes behind!) Under pressure, Peter, the leader of his motley crew, denies he even knows him. And except for some of his women disciples "looking on from a distance," he dies alone.
Once the Gospel Passion narratives begin, Jesus' miracles stop. Except for restoring a severed ear in Luke's Gethsemane pericope, Jesus is as human as any of his followers. He, like them, completely loses his power to control the situations he encounters, something that always happens when one completely gives himself or herself to others.
How do we know when and how to give ourselves to others? Deutero-Isaiah answers that question in today's Third Song of the Suffering Servant. "Morning after morning," this unnamed prophet reflects, "Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled, have not turned back."
Carroll Stuhlmueller was convinced there was no better definition of a disciple of God anywhere in Scripture. God's authentic followers hit the floor every morning listening for what God is telling them today that they didn't notice God telling them yesterday, listening for the needs of those around them, needs they hadn't heard yesterday.
Never content just to repeat yesterday's faith, real followers of God, like Jesus, are willing to endure the psychological pain that will be inflicted on anyone who opens new horizons of love.
More than anything, our Christian sacred authors believe Jesus is alive today, sharing his love of all people through us. As we hear today's readings, we're not just to zero in on someone else's suffering. We're to reflect on our own Christ-inspired, Christ-emptying suffering. If we don't, we're not hearing the message those authors intended us to hear.
[Fr. Roger Vermalen Karban is pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Renault, Ill.]