Irony in St. Mark’s Passion Narrative

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

On this particular Passion Sunday, we read the narrative from the Gospel of St. Mark. I turn to the work of Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., perhaps the preeminent New Testament scholar of the 20th Century, to reflect on the unique contributions that St. Mark makes to this all too familiar story.

It begins with a woman anointing Jesus with a costly ointment, contained in a costly bottle. The woman is lavish in her attention to Jesus, breaking the bottle and pouring its contents over Jesus. Bystanders complain about the extravagance. To paraphrase their comments, "This is too much. You are going beyond the bounds of reason in this extravagance." This story sets up an irony that it so telling. No one says of Jesus' sacrifice, "This is too much. You are going beyond the bounds of good sense to save us from our sins."

St. Mark's irony continues. When the guard comes to arrest Jesus, the disciples flee. One of them drops the linen cloth that he is wearing and flees naked from the scene. "The disciple fleeing naked is symbolic simply of the total abandonment of Jesus by his disciples. The first disciples to be called left nets and family, indeed everything, to follow him; but the last disciple, who at first sought to follow Jesus, ultimately leaves everything to get away from him." (Raymond Brown, Crucified Christ in Holy Week, p. 23)

The irony intensifies as the Roman soldiers mock and ridicule Jesus, crowning him with thorns and robing him in purple, placing a reed as a scepter in his hands. While they think this to be ridicule, they are in fact recognizing Jesus for who he really is. Only evil spirits and Roman soldiers, including a centurion standing beneath the crucifix, recognize Jesus while his own people fail to do so.

Unlike the Gospel of St. John, St. Mark writes that Jesus stands mute before Pilate. In this one detail, St. Mark recognizes who Jesus is, for the king would never enter into an argument with or answer questions posed by an inferior official.

Abandoned and publically humiliated, crucified with thieves, the supreme irony is effected by God. While the world may think Jesus is abandoned and shamed, the resurrection reverses that thinking. God does not abandon Jesus; rather he exalts him.

St. Mark's Passion narrative, filled with irony, reminds us that God is the final arbiter of honor and glory.

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