This Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word invites us to contemplate Jesus that “being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Ph 2,7-8). The event of the passion and death of the Lord narrated and meditated on in Mark’s gospel, in effect, makes up today the center of attraction of the biblical readings. The two pericopes that proceed the evangelical narration place us in a good perspective of reading it and offer us its interpretive key.
The first reading (Is 50,4-7) is taken from the third of the four songs of the mysterious “servant of the Lord” of Deutero-Isaiah (cf. Is 42,1-4; 49,1-7; 50,4-9; 52,13-53,12). To the question of the Ethiopian to Philip, on the way from Jerusalem down to Gaza, in Acts 8,34: “…is the prophet referring to himself or someone else?” there have been given various answers. Some authors think that the servant means the people of Israel or a faithful part of the same as servant of God; others identify him with suffering Jeremiah, with the Persian King Cyrus (cf. Is 45,1), or with the prophet himself; not lacking those that see in these songs different servants (Israel, the faithful remnant, the prophet, etc.). In the first Christian communities the Servant Songs were applied to Jesus (cf. Mt 8,17; 12,18-21; Lk 22,37; Acts 8,32-33) and some of their features appear in the Baptism and Transfiguration of the Lord. In addition, the figure of the servant was used to speak of Israel (Lk 1,54) or of Jesus’ disciples (Mt 5,14.16.39; Acts 14,37; 26,17-18).
In any case, the figure of the servant is, in reality, a sketch of Jesus-Messiah who, as prophet, does not only announce the word to whomever is thrown down (Is 50,4), but he is the divine Word himself in the midst of men and women. The servant is not only the man of the word but also the man of sorrow. One of the features most typical is suffering: they strike his back like a fool, him, wisdom par excellence, spokesman of the word; they surround him with spite (insults, spit on him, pull his beard). However, he does not resist but faces head on consciously pain, confiding in the help and protection of God, with the security that he will not be defrauded. Suffering acquires in him a new meaning in relationship to the traditional thought: it is the consequence of his ministry, and paradoxically, testing is not a rejection but divine election.
The second reading (Ph 2,6-11) is a poetic hymn probably of a liturgical origin. Though there are other possibilities, it seems preferable to divide it into two strophes: (I) 2,6-8: humiliation of Christ and (II) 2,9-11: exaltation of Christ. Christ’s Easter is presented in a new and original way, through an ascending movement that goes from humiliation unto exaltation. The hymn permits us to contemplate the double face of Easter, made up of sorrow and glory, of humiliation and of salvation.
The mystery of the passion-death of Jesus is annihilation, condition of slave, hiddeness of God: Christ, being of “divine state” (Ph 2,6), “assumed the condition of a slave, and became as men are” (Ph 2,7; cf. 2 Cor 8,9). His humiliation goes to the extreme when “he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Ph 2,8). Death on the cross, in effect, is the supreme expression of humiliation in the Roman world: it is the death of slaves and foreigners. At the same time, the passion-death of Jesus is positive risk, triumph, resurrection and glorification, full salvation and “divine name”: the second strophe of the hymn stresses that the exaltation is the answer of God to the full humiliation accepted by Christ obedient until the end (2,9: “God raised him on high”). God exalts his Christ (cf. Jn 3,14; 8,28; 12,32; Acts 21,33; 5,31), through the symbolic action of the concession of a name, not of a person name (Jesus) that he now has in his humiliation, but of a “title” that expresses the new condition of a glorified Christ higher than all beings. The concession of that title is not realized in the intimacy of God but in public and has as an end that Jesus may be recognized as Lord, Kyrios that expresses his glory and divine sovereignty. The obedience of Jesus Messiah, lived with absolute liberty, is the way of the new man.
The gospel of this Sunday is made up of the account of the Passion according to Mark (14,1-15,47). Of the four evangelists, Mark seems to be the evangelist that tells the account with more objectivity the crude facts, the upsetting reality of the death of Jesus on the cross. This does not mean that he lacks theological profundity. But his theology is exactly in stressing that in the scandal of the cross is the maximum revelation of Jesus. Mark looks to make us accept this scandal because it is only in this that Jesus reveals himself for that which he truly is, “the Son of God” (15,39). It is not by chance that someone has defined the entire gospel of Mark as an “apology for the cross.”
From the beginning of his gospel, Mark proclaims Jesus Messiah (the Christ) and Son of God (1,1). The entire gospel is understood to make us discover together with the first disciples who is this Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus himself refuses to say who he may be and prohibits the demons from manifesting his identity (1,25). Peter proclaims him Messiah (8,29), but his concept of Messiah does not correspond to that which Jesus is (8,31-33). In is only in the supreme hour of his passion that Jesus declares himself openly Messiah (14,62), Son of Man (ibid.) and King of the Jews (15,2). Now there is not any danger of being misunderstood. No one will think that it treats of re-vindication of political power now that they see him condemned to death on a cross. In fact, it is only in this moment, in his complete annihilation on the cross that Jesus can be recognized and proclaimed for that which he is truly is, the Son of God (15,39).
The account begins with the intention of the high priests and of the scribes of “looking for a way to arrest Jesus by some trick and have him put to death” (14,1). The proper occasion presents itself when Judas approached them with an offer to hand over Jesus (14,10). Enclosed among these two clear affirmations of the intention to kill Jesus, is found the scene of the anointing of Jesus by a woman during a dinner at Bethany (14,3-9). Jesus is aware of that which is happening behind his back and welcomes this woman’s gesture as an anticipation of his burial (14,8).
After fulfilling the necessary preparations (14,12-16), that give once more the sense that Jesus is going out to meet something that has been preordained, and that he knows well, Jesus sits down with the twelve to eat the Passover (14,17-25). It is significant that Mark frames the scene in which Jesus gives himself to the disciples as broken bread and spilled blood (14,22-24) between the announcement on the part of Jesus of Judas’ betrayal (14,18-21) and that of the denial of Peter (14,27-31). The contrast is clear.
The scene in Gethsemane (14,32-51), is centered on the sadness and fear that Jesus experiences before his death. This opens with the desire that Jesus feels for the company and sustenance of his most intimate disciples (14,33) and concludes with the abandonment of Jesus on the part of all (14,50-51). Jesus, completely alone, after having accepted to drink the chalice presented to him by the Father (14,36), he goes out to meet freely the traitor (in Greek the word for traitor is a participle of the verb “to hand over”; therefore the traitor is him that hands him over, a word dense in meaning that is found nine times in the account). Jesus is fully conscious; he knows that “the hour has come” (14,41). The scene of the process before the Sanhedrin (14,53.55-56) is placed in parallel with the denial of Peter (14,54.66-72). While Jesus declares – for the only time in all of the gospel – that he is the Messiah, like Peter had proclaimed it before, (8,29), Peter now denies being his disciple because for the moment, he cannot accept a crucified Messiah (see 8,31-33). Inside the Sanhedrin, the declaration of Jesus brings about scandal and “their verdict was unanimous: he deserved to die” (14,64).
The Roman process (15,1-15) is framed by the verb “to hand over”; the Sanhedrin hands over Jesus to Pilate (15,1) and Pilate hands him over so that he may be crucified (15,15). During this process, Jesus is recognized as the King of the Jews (15,2). Jesus, that has not done anything wrong (15,14) is compared with Barabbas, rebel and murderer (15,7). Pilate wants to let Jesus go, but the people choose Barabbas and ask for their “King” death on a cross (15,11-14). Before being taken away to be crucified, Jesus is mocked by the Roman soldiers with an appropriate farce to the accusation of being the King of the Jews (15,16-20).
In the account of the execution, we can distinguish six successive moments: the way to Golgotha (15,21-23), the crucifixion (15,24-28), the mockery (15,29-32), death (15,22-27), the repercussions of Jesus’ death (15,38-39), and the presence of the women (15,40-41). The mockery takes up two different accusations against Jesus: that he made himself Messiah (Jewish process) and King of the Jews (Roman process). The atmosphere at the hour of death is tense. Darkness comes (15,33). Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (15,34 and finally gives a loud cry and breathed his last (15,37). To all, it seems like now his pretenses were now finished because God did not vindicate him from the last hour (see 15,35-36). But the centurion, a pagan, “had seen how he had died and he said, ‘In truth this man was Son of God’” (15,39). This is the baffling logic of God that Paul calls “the folly of the cross” (see 1 Cor 1,18-25).
The account of the burial (15,42-47) indicates the continuity between death and resurrection. On one hand, Mark speaks of the corpse of Jesus (15,45; in Greek, mortal remains) to stress the reality of his death; on the other hand, speaks of the hope of the kingdom of God (15,43) and of the women that were there to observe where they laid him (15,47). They are the same women that Easter morning, will discover the empty tomb and will receive first the announcement of the resurrection (16,1-6).