By Deacon Margaret Holt
On Mark 14 and 15, the Passion of Christ, 28 March 2021
Two years ago, on Holy Monday of Passion week 2019, a fire badly damaged the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I remember how moved I was when I saw video of the Parisian people watching as the Cathedral burned. They were just standing and watching with shock and disbelief, no talking just silence… except for the singing. They began singing the most beautiful hymns as they stood, helpless. They weren’t reading out of a hymn-book, they were singing from memory…. And whether they were regular church goers or not, the anguish and distress was palpable. Notre Dame is a symbol of their spiritual identity, the history of their faith and culture. For them, it was an unthinkable loss. When the 700-year-old gothic spire finally succumbed to the flames and collapsed, there was anguished gasps from the crowd… and a few days later I thought how much the crowds in Jerusalem would have felt like that when they awoke that Friday morning, shocked to see the man Jesus, almost unrecognizable now, dying on a Roman cross outside of the city.
How had this happened? These past days, he had entered the city in triumph, had preached with authority, passion and wisdom as he always did, and healing those who came to him with compassion and love. He was such a vibrant, powerful person…. How had he ended up there literally overnight, helpless and crushed on a cross.
As we heard today from the gospel of Mark, once the Passion itself begins, it tumbles forward relentlessly in this blur of grief, betrayal, hatred, vindictiveness and death. The passion story begins though, with an act of love….
The story of Jesus’ anointing by a woman is told, with variations in detail, in each of the four gospels and in three of the gospels the incident takes place just before Jesus’ arrest and death, at a house in the town of Bethany about 2.5 km from Jerusalem. What is common between all of the stories is the love shown by the woman to Jesus which he acknowledges in each telling of the story. The gospel of John tells us that the woman is Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus and this makes sense because Jesus was very close to this family and stayed with them, in their house in Bethany, on his visits to Jerusalem.
Jesus knows that in a few days he will die in the most horrifically humiliating and painful way. With all of the eating and conversation going on around him he would have felt very isolated, and then Mary approaches with a very expensive and beautifully perfumed ointment, breaks the jar and pours it over Jesus’ head. It is an incredibly tender and intimate moment of spiritual discernment, love and comfort…., and then a bunch of them start criticizing the woman for wasting all of that money that could have gone to the poor. Jesus is hurt - She did what she could for me, Jesus says…. she poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial, and he describes it as a beautiful thing that she has done for him. “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done (today) will also be told, in memory of her.”
Mary’s act of extravagant love was one of the last kind things done to Jesus before his death. Her touch was in marked contrast to the touch he would experience when he was beaten, flogged, and ultimately crucified.
The religious leaders who so hated Jesus, knew they couldn’t arrest him openly, as they said, ‘or the people may riot’. They knew that the people would defend him, and they couldn’t risk a riot in the city. They had to arrest him at night, hence the need for a betrayer from among his group who knew where he would be.
In Mark 14, after the anointing, we go straight in to the betrayal of Judas, the last supper, the denial of Peter, the desertion by all of the others…. We know that both Peter and Judas are distraught at what they have done, or failed to do. Peter remains with the others, and later, after Jesus’ resurrection, he is drawn back through Jesus’ forgiveness and love. Judas, I feel sure, had no idea that the cross would be the outcome of his betrayal. Remember, he didn’t betray Jesus to the Roman authorities, he betrayed him to the local religious leaders, and when he saw that Jesus was condemned to death, he confronted them, threw the money back at them, and, distraught, took his own life. Sometimes, I wish he had hung on and waited… would Jesus have forgiven him? Perhaps, Jesus final words to Judas give us a clue – when Judas came to the garden and kissed him, Jesus said; "Do what you came for, friend."
So, Jesus, when he begins his passion, is alone. His friends have gone, and he has entered a different world which is peopled by a new cast of characters, many of them hostile and many of them nameless to us, they come in and out of the story – pushing him, slapping him, yelling, scourging, sometimes an act of kindness like the woman who wipes his face as he stumbles along - and we are helpless observers as this emotional story moves on relentlessly to its horrific end. Jesus is just focused on what he has to do….to get to that point where he can finally say; It is finished….
Caiaphas asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, the Son of God, Pilate askes Jesus if he is the King of the Jews (being Roman that would be his understanding of what the Messiah is). The religious leaders taunt him in an echo of the temptations – if you are the Son of God, as Satan had said, if you are the Messiah, the king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” It took a pagan Roman centurion to answer Caiaphas’ and Pilate’s questions. As Jesus died, he said; truly this man was God’s Son, or ‘holy’, or ‘divine’… however, he understood that, he knew Jesus was not the usual person that they crucified.
Mark records just one specific cry from the cross - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? from psalm 22 – which is the cry of humanity, for justice and compassion…
Jesus’ words from the cross show his deep love towards every single individual, without exception, even in the midst of his own agony; Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing; truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise; he commits his mother to the care of a friend from the cross; and finally - Father, into your hands I commit my spirit…
It is a strange 24 hours… and what does it mean? Why?
Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, puts it this way:
“Let me tell you what (Jesus’ death) does not mean, for over the centuries there have been some strange and distorting theories about the sacrificial death of Christ. It does not mean that God sent an innocent man to death because he requires blood. The Passion and death of Jesus are not a pagan sacrifice. It does not mean Jesus came to placate an angry God, nor to show us how we must submit to an inscrutable God…. Jesus came to do one thing to embody the love of God for his creation.” unquote
Jesus came, lived, suffered, died and lived again, for love, for love of us all…. And whatever happens in our lives, day by day, that one thing we can always hold on to, for ourselves and all creation is - How much we are loved and forgiven….
In John 14, Jesus’ friends and disciples are facing an unthinkable loss. Jesus reassures them that death and loss will not have the last word… He will go ahead of them and show them the way through death to life…. in my Father’s house are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.
Love will triumph….
Paul challenges us to be people who have the same mind and the same heart that was in Christ. That mind-set is the total giving of ourselves in love, for the good of others, for the good of all creation…. For the sake of mercy, compassion and justice.
May Isaac Watt’s prayer be ours today, and this week, and always:
Were the whole world mine to give, it would be an offering far too small…
For love, so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all…. Amen