Mark wrote the sparest, and probably the earliest, Gospel that we have. In many ways it is also the bleakest. Throughout its sixteen chapters the disciples of Jesus become more and more confused about who he is. Conflict with religious authorities begins to build early on, and by end of the thirteenth chapter a sense of inevitable doom has descended on everyone. This story is not going to end well.
Movement toward that end accelerates in the fourteenth chapter, where the passion reading begins on Sunday. The scene is quickly set: it is major festival time of Passover and Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and scribes are out to kill Jesus. An woman anoints Jesus for his burial – a woman who will always be remembered, we’re told, yet ironically her name is omitted by Mark. Jesus’ response to her costly action sends Judas over the edge, and he leaves to plot with the priests and scribes.
Jesus and his disciples hold the Passover meal at a pre-arranged location. Mark provides details that immediately connect us to our own Eucharists two thousand years later. When Jesus predicts his abandonment the disciples object. Hot-headed Peter sets himself up for a very, very big fall.
They all go out to Gethsemane. In a very human gesture, Jesus throws himself on the ground and prays that he will be spared what he knows is coming. Three times he finds Peter, James and John asleep; three times he wakes them up. Finally Judas arrives with armed companions. He gives his rabbi a kiss and they seize Jesus.
Everyone flees. Everyone. In case anyone would doubt how complete that abandonment was, Mark inserts a mysterious vignette of a young man who escapes by leaving his clothes behind and running away naked. Some have said that this is Mark inserting himself into the story, a practice Alfred Hitchcock later did in his movies, but that’s an unsupported guess. It’s best to see the young man simply as reinforcing the atmosphere of abandonment.
Soon Peter denies three times that he ever knew Jesus. It’s a memorable sequence – first a private denial to a single slave girl, then again to the girl amidst bystanders, and finally to the whole group of bystanders. In the end Peter swears as the cock crows a second time. Peter is utterly crushed that he has done what he said he would never do, and leaves weeping.
The scene swiftly moves through Jesus’ trial and condemnation to mockery and crucifixion. Mark carefully gives an explicit time frame. At 9 am Jesus is nailed to the cross; at noon darkness comes over the whole land; at 3 pm he cries out and dies. In Mark’s telling of the story, Jesus speaks only once from the cross. He utters the cry of dereliction from the beginning of Psalm 22, as though abandoned even by God himself.
Is there no light in this darkness? Is the cry of abandonment the final word? For all of the major characters of the story, yes. But there are hints that it will not remain so. Simon of Cyrene was compelled to help carry the cross; he is mentioned as the father of Alexander and Rufus, so all three must have been familiar to Mark’s hearers. The pagan Roman centurion acknowledges that this was the Son of God. Joseph of Arimathea took a great risk to ask for and bury the body. And near the end Mark finally reveals for the first time that Jesus had women disciples. Unlike the men, they stuck around, though at a distance. They witnessed the death and burial. In a few days they will witness the empty tomb.
The abandonment of Jesus is disastrous. Yet it is not quite total. Mark’s story of the cross, like the rest of his Gospel, is a paradox. The Messiah came, but no one knew him. He called disciples, and the longer they were with him the less they understood. Jesus cried out in desolation on the cross, yet he was not totally alone. Mark’s Gospel is bleak, but it is not without hope. It is a lot like the body of Jesus, hidden in the tomb. There is death, and the loss and sorrow that come with it. But there is also hope, enough hope to get us through to what lies ahead. Let us wait with those faithful women, and see what that third day brings.
[Palm Sunday: The Passion According to Mark (14:1-15:47).]