“Love so amazing, so divine, demands our souls, our lives, our all.”
Palm Sunday is a rich, powerful, conflicted day in the life of the church. We begin with hosannas, palms, and praise, and end with silence and the cross. Each year, our hearts churn with emotion as we hear again the story of the last week of Jesus’ life and begin the journey that will pass through Maundy Thursday, lead to Good Friday, and the silence of Holy Saturday. We enter into the drama, participate as we wave our branches and shout, “Hosanna!” and a few minutes later, shout, just as loudly, “Crucify him.”
There is so much here, so much on which to reflect. And really, what might be best for us would be to be silent, to sit with our emotions, with the images that run through our minds, to sit with our memories, our faith, and our doubt, and not worry about words.
But among all those images, in the stories from Mark’s gospel that we heard, I want to draw your attention to one theme, one set of characters, one aspect of the drama, that might help us orient ourselves to this story and to the days that follow this one.
One of the dominant themes that runs through the Gospel of Mark, from its very beginning is that Jesus’ disciples are uncertain of who he is, unclear on what he is about, and misunderstand Jesus’ intentions and message. This portrayal intensifies as the gospel progresses, and in the passion narrative, we see a group of disciples who are fearful, forgetful, and abandon Jesus. He dies alone, on the cross, the cry of despair on his lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the end, Jesus wonders whether he has been abandoned by God, as well as by his friends.
Even as this is Mark’s dominant theme, he writes into his gospel another theme, or contrasts the behavior of Jesus’ male disciples with another group of individuals, the group of women. So, at the beginning of today’s reading, we heard not only of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but of the wonderful story of the woman who anointed Jesus. Her behavior, and Jesus’ praise of her—“she has anointed my body beforehand for burial”—is Jesus’ acknowledgment that even if he is betrayed by Judas and the other male disciples don’t understand what is going to happen, this woman, this disciple does, and as he commends her he says, in one of those ironic twists Mark loves, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”—ironic, because the story is indeed told of her wherever the gospel is proclaimed, we don’t know her name.
So to at the end of today’s reading, Mark depicts Jesus’ death, the confession of the centurion, and then, “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
There they were, watching silently, fearfully, full of grief. There they were standing afar off as their hopes and dreams were dashed, their teacher, killed. There they were as they watched his execution, his death, and watched as others they knew took his body down and buried it. Was it then that they made plans to come to the tomb after the Sabbath, to anoint his body with spices? To touch him once again, to perform the familiar and ancient rituals of burial?
As followers of Jesus, as seekers, the curious, Holy Week presents us with intense emotions, profound questions. It is a story that many of us know, and as we reenact it in the liturgy of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, we do more than go through motions, or play a part. We enter into the ancient story, and become characters in it ourselves. It is a story that asks us where we stand, what will we do?
And all of those characters, Judas the Betrayer, Peter the Denier, the disciples who fell asleep while Jesus prayed, the disciples who fled in fear from the scene and abandoned Jesus. We are at times, all of those characters. We have each at one time or another, acted like one of them, or of the others—the crowd who shouted “Crucify him” or the soldiers who executed him, or the bystanders who mocked.
Holy Week confronts us with profound questions, but none may be more pressing, more difficult, than the one that asks, “Where do you stand? Or “Are you walking with Jesus on his journey?” Are you staying with him, bearing witness?
Even as our very human emotions, our busy, complicated lives, our divided allegiances, encourage us or tempt us to flee, or keep silent, or deny, or betray, or simply to ignore, Mark is challenging us, as he always does, to go deeper, to plumb the depths of our own lives and experiences, and as we do that, to look for, to seek Jesus.
When we do that, when we dare to allow Mark’s story, the story of Jesus to enter deeply into our lives and world, we are confronted, not only with ourselves, but with the mystery of salvation, the mystery of Jesus, the mystery of love and sacrifice.
Earlier in the gospel, as Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, after he made his first prediction of what would happen when he got there, he told his disciples, “If you want to become my followers, take up your cross and follow me.”
When we do that, we enter into Jesus’ journey, going with him into the heart of God, where we will find love. It is not an easy journey, because as Mark insists, the journey to God, into God, is a journey into the suffering, oppression, and injustice of the world, where God is working transformation. It is there that we see God, there we find God, there we know and are loved by God.
Following Jesus to the cross, standing near the cross, we encounter God in Christ. We encounter the miracle of transformation as Mark tells us, even his executioner knew and saw, that truly “This man is the Son of God.” May this experience and transformation be yours this Holy Week, may this experience and transformation be everyone’s in the midst of our broken, suffering, unjust world.