At the beginning of St. Mark’s passion narrative, he includes the story of a woman who anoints Jesus with a jar of costly ointment. She breaks the bottle and pours the costly ointment over Jesus’ head. Those who witnessed this act were horrified. “This is too much? You go too far? You have wasted 300 days wages. Why have you done this?” She is chided for her extravagance. The act is even denigrated by saying that the money could have been put to a much more appropriate use.
This little story stands before the Passion to remind us that no one, not one single person, said to Jesus as he gave up his life for us: “This is too much? You go too far? You have poured out your divine life for us. What do you hope to get in return? Why have you done this?”
That story must be compared to another incident that takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas betrays Jesus and points him out to the mob that has been sent by the chief priests. While we are horrified by Judas’ treachery, the Gospel makes it very clear that all of the apostle ran away. Mark drives home this point by telling us that one of Jesus’ disciples actually runs away naked, literally leaving everything to get away from Jesus. We are not told specifically who this man was. However, we immediately remember that at the beginning of the Gospel, Mark tells us that the men whom Jesus called left everything to follow him. The irony here is so powerful; one who left everything to follow him finally leaves everything to get away from him.
This desperate act comes into even closer focus later on in the story as a passer-by is pressed into service to help Jesus to carry his cross. Not one of his followers was present when Jesus needed him.
The final irony comes as Jesus dies and hands over cries out in a loud voice and expires. Throughout the Gospel, the evangelist has told us that Jesus simply was not recognized. Though the Jews had been prepared for centuries for the coming of the Messiah, when he came among them only the evil spirits whom he expelled knew that he was the “Holy One of God.” Now, after his death, their voices are joined by that of a Roman centurion who states unequivocally, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Passion or Palm Sunday is a study in contrasts. Our liturgy, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem began with palm branches and songs of joy and praise for Jesus as King. He is welcomed into the city with shouts of Hosanna! Just a few days later, we are told that he left that city scourged, mocked, beaten, spat upon, a half-dead wreck of a man who is executed as a criminal.
Catholics throughout the world will keep this week which we call holy. As Catholics we have the critical reasoning capacity and the faith to hold two things in tension without being confused. That capacity is best exemplified in today’s liturgy. Jesus is both the Messiah who is welcomed and the criminal who is despised. Jesus is both divine and human. The kingdom of God is both present and not yet fully here. The Eucharist is both the appearance of bread and wine and truly the Body and Blood of Christ. In today’s liturgy we are an Easter People who live in a Good Friday world. Though we live in a world full of suffering, we place our trust in a promise of eternal life free of evil and suffering.
We live in the here and now. We are confronted with a world full of contrasts as we witness the heroism and bravery of a police officer who died trying to save others from a mad gunman at the same time we see others who resort to violence for no reason other than to harm people who are different than they are. Our world has been torn apart by a terrible virus that still rages, especially among the poor. That same world has been comforted and cared for by doctors and nurses who stood at the bedsides of the dying. Palm Sunday is perhaps the Sunday best suited for our world as it presents us with the irony of a God who loved us so much, but who became a victim of hatred and violence. With God’s help, may we always find ourselves on the side of the woman at Bethany, Simon of Cyrene, the Roman centurion and Joseph of Arimathea – signs of hope in a world that cries out for it.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator