by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Sometimes, I reminisce during my homily, telling the confirmation candidates that when I was confirmed — eons ago in the last millennium while the dinosaurs still walked the earth — the bishop slapped each person being confirmed. That was when it was fun to be a bishop!
The bishop did not slap the newly confirmed hard, but just gave them a gentle tap. It was a symbol reminding the individual that to follow Jesus is not for wimps.
Jesus did not promise the path of discipleship would be easy. In fact, just the opposite. Our Lord warned his disciples that following him meant sharing in the cross. If we are to be an authentic disciple of Jesus, we have to be prepared to follow him all the way to Calvary.
The Passion narratives are the heart of the Gospels. Everything else in the Gospel is to prepare us for the drama of Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
On Palm Sunday this year, we will read the Passion according to St. Mark (Mk 14:1 – 15:47). Each year, during the Good Friday liturgy, we hear St. John’s account of the Passion (18:1 – 19:42). During Holy Week, I encourage you to read and pray over the Passion narratives of both Mark and John.
Mark begins his account in Bethany, where an unidentified woman anoints Jesus with costly perfumed oil. Her gesture of affection and respect for Our Lord provokes criticism, with some protesting her extravagance and suggesting the perfumed oil could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Ironically, immediately after this controversy, Judas Iscariot enters into a financial agreement with the chief priests to betray Jesus.
Mark then provides his account of the Last Supper, where Jesus gives the church the twin sacraments of the priesthood and the Eucharist. During the course of the Passover meal, Our Lord predicts his betrayal by one of the Twelve. When Peter brags about his absolute fidelity to Jesus, Our Lord predicts Peter’s triple denial before the sunrise.
The scene shifts to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus spent the night praying intensely to be preserved from the coming trials, but concluded by submitting completely to his Father’s will. Meanwhile, his closest but clueless disciples are falling asleep.
Judas has led those deputized by the high priests to arrest Jesus to the location where Our Lord has been praying. Judas makes the wound of his betrayal more devastating by pointing out Our Lord by a sign of affection to the menacing mob.
All of the apostles and disciples desert Jesus. One interesting detail unique to Mark’s narrative is his description of a young disciple literally losing his clothes in his effort to flee the chief priests’ thugs. Many Scripture scholars believe this to be autobiographical. Mark is disclosing his own cowardice.
Mark describes the sham of a trial conducted by the high priest. Those giving false testimony cannot even manage to get their fabricated stories to agree.
Meanwhile, Peter has worked up enough courage to come to the high priest’s courtyard, attempting to blend in with the crowd. When one of the chief priest’s maids and some of the other bystanders recognize Peter as one of Our Lord’s disciples, Peter denies three times even knowing Jesus. Peter exits the Passion narrative weeping over his cowardice.
After allowing the guards to beat, humiliate and mock him, the chief priests drag Our Lord to Pontius Pilate with the hope he will grant permission to crucify Jesus. Pilate knows that he is not guilty. Nevertheless, after some feeble and ineffective attempts to free Jesus, Pilate ultimately takes the easy course and acquiesces to the demands of the crowd.
Now, it is the turn of the Roman soldiers to whip, mock and humiliate Jesus before forcing him to carry the instrument of his execution to Cavalry. Once arriving at Golgotha, they strip Jesus of his clothing and nail him to the cross. The chief priests, scribes, passersby and even the criminals crucified alongside Jesus taunt and verbally abuse Our Lord.
At around 3 p.m., Jesus cries out the beginning of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This psalm actually prophesizes many of the details of Our Lord’s passion and crucifixion, as well as his ultimate vindication.
After his death, it is a pagan Roman centurion who makes a beautiful profession of faith: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” Mark highlights the heroism of the female disciples who, attempting to give Our Lord comfort and support, remain with him throughout the terrible ordeal of his tortuous death.
Joseph of Arimathea also distinguishes himself by having the courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus. A member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph boldly defied the chief priests by tenderly and respectfully placing the lifeless body of Jesus in his own tomb.
There are many fascinating characters and subplots in the Passion narrative that can provide rich opportunities for fruitful meditation. Most importantly, the Passion reveals the depth of God’s love for us — depicting what Our Lord was willing to endure so that we might receive mercy and gain a share of everlasting life.
This is indeed the greatest and most important story ever told. Unlike the myths of pagan religions, it recounts actual historical events. You can visit the sites today where all these events transpired.
More importantly, the Passion provides the essentials of what we believe as 21st-century disciples of Jesus. If we truly accept the love of God described in these two chapters of Mark’s Gospel, then our lives can never be the same. We can never doubt being loved by the only one who can satisfy the deepest longings of our heart.
Moreover, when suffering comes inevitably to our lives, we are able to view it differently than an unbelieving world. Though like Jesus we naturally ask the Father to remove burdens from our lives, through Jesus we find the power to embrace the Father’s will.
It is actually moments of adversity that provide us the opportunity to witness most compellingly to the power of Jesus to animate the lives of disciples today.
It is our capacity to maintain peace and even radiate joy in the midst of suffering that unbelievers have found irresistible for the past 2,000 years.