Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Who is this?

Palm Sunday

Today’s liturgy is unique not only because we had a mother of all liturgical processions at the beginning of mass, but we were also treated to two gospel readings from the Gospel of St Mark. The first is an account of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the second is Mark’s Passion narrative. If you are familiar with the gospels, you would know that St Mark provides us with the shortest account, just sixteen chapters in its entirety. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into shorter stories or even a shorter passion narrative. Mark’s Gospel has famously been described as a passion narrative with an extended introduction. This is because around one third of the gospel is devoted to the Passion story.

In fact, St Mark’s gospel stands out in a special way as the Gospel of the Cross. It is possible that the evangelist started with the Cross and then worked backwards. The cross inevitably casts its shadow over the story. Mark does talk about some of the miracles that Jesus performs, but he argues that the true messiahship of Jesus cannot be recognised in His miracles. Rather, true messiahship, true kingship, true authority, can and would only be revealed on the cross. St Mark wrote the gospel not to explain the scandal of the cross but to remind his readers that this part of the story was absolutely central to their faith. Mark seeks to underline the link between Jesus’ death and the cost of discipleship. “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  The crucifixion was not just a metaphor, but a real possibility. The crucifixion was not just meant for the Lord, it's meant for us too. 

Two distinct but interrelated threads converge in the Markan passion story: the portrait of Jesus as the Son of God who is also the suffering Son of Man, and the portrait of the disciples. These are not courageous super-heroes of the bible but weak, selfish and brittle men. In the first instance, Jesus’ life climaxes with a selfless sacrifice. In the second instance, the disciples show themselves to be weak, cowardly and even ambitious, despite the occasional bravado, words and promises that do not translate into reality or action. In the end, one of the closest followers betrays Jesus, Peter denies Him not once but three times, and the rest flee for their lives. Not a great track record for the inner circle.

From the very beginning of the Gospel, the characters in Mark have inquired after Jesus’ identity. They have wondered whence His power over demons came, and how He could teach with such authority. In the final days, Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem as king in the line of the great king of Israel, David. Throughout the passion story, this search continues, with much of the questioning of Jesus surrounding the entire notion of His “kingship.” The chief priests, elders and scribes seek to know if He is the Messiah, the long-awaited leader who would cast off the Romans, while Pilate, the visible sign of Rome’s presence and power in Jerusalem, inquires directly about the nature of Jesus’ kingship.

At the end of the day, Pilate and Jesus’ opponents agree on one thing: Jesus is no king, at least not one that conforms to their categories. In Pilate’s mind He is a harmless victim of the leaders’ envy; to the leaders He is a false and dangerous claimant to religious authority. So ultimately Jesus is mocked for His pretensions to kingship: a cloak of purple, a crown of thorns, a reed sceptre, and a parody of homage that turns violent. But the reader of Mark’s passion story knows that it is not Jesus but those symbols of abusive power that are being mocked.

The end comes swiftly in Mark’s account; the story is told in few words, as if it were too painful to say more. After His condemnation by Pilate, Jesus is mocked as a king and from the cross, He is again mocked by passers-by as “King of the Jews” and “King of Israel”. Ironically, what His mockers don’t realise is the truth of their words. Jesus is, in fact, a king, but not the kind they expect. His kingship consists not in leading armies but in being a true shepherd who cares for His flock, a suffering Messiah whose identity can only be understood from the cross that He came to bear. He is a king but one whose power is expressed not in exploiting or “lording it over others” but offering the greatest service. Here is a sovereign who does not wantonly take the life of His subjects but gives them life. Yes, this story is not an account of mere human failure. It is rather the story of a “king” who redefines the nature of kingship and who makes the ultimate sacrifice for His people by the gift of His own body and blood.

During the death watch, a parade of mockery dredges up the issues of the trial and hurls them at the man on the cross: His threats to the temple; His power to save others and now His inability to save Himself. Mark casts this last taunt in strongly ironic tones: “Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, for us to see it and believe.” But we the audience, know that Jesus’ power is demonstrated not in shedding the cross but in carrying it, in giving His life for others. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it”. Ironically, no one else sees this except the Gentile centurion. The death of our Lord would ignite faith in his heart. The sight of the Crucified Lord triggers the first complete confession of faith, “In truth this man was a son of God.” And just like that, the man who presided over Jesus’ execution, the man who ordered the nails to be driven into His hands and feet, became the first person to become a believer after Jesus’ death. Such irony! What an awesome, exciting testament this is to God’s grace! God was willing and eager to save one of those primarily responsible for the murder of His Son. What greater irony that the true identity of our Lord would and could only be revealed on the cross.

And so as we begin our Holy Week, we begin this liturgical climax of our Christian faith, we rejoice at the return of our King, our great and beloved prince, who would risk everything including sacrificing His own life in order to save His people. We accompany Him into Jerusalem, as we follow Him to Golgotha and beyond. Let us pursue this course to the very end, without turning back, without distracting ourselves with some other detour, without running away from the horror of the cross.  And if anyone were to ask us, “Who is this?” “Who is this king that you follow?” Let us join the Roman centurion in confessing, without flinching, without hesitating, “In truth this man was a son of God.”

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