As we begin Holy Week, we focus our attention more and more on the passion and death of Jesus.
The reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah can be seen as a prediction of Jesus’ suffering and death. In this reading the servant of God describes the suffering he endured because he spoke “to the weary a word that will rouse them.” The servant says, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.”
The reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians outlines the career of Christ, including his suffering and death. He emptied himself to become a man and then humbled himself, “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Because of this God has now highly exalted him and made him the recipient of universal worship.
The reading from the gospel according to Mark is Mark’s passion narrative, his detailed description of the last days of Jesus’ life. Each of the four gospels includes a passion narrative. While they all tell the same story, each has unique elements that reveal the evangelist’s own perspective on the death of Jesus.
Mark emphasizes the paradox that Jesus was the Messiah precisely in his suffering and death, i.e., at the moment he least appeared to be the Messiah. Mark shows in several ways how little Jesus appeared to be the Messiah when he died. First, Mark presents Jesus’ death as the result of his rejection by the chief priests and scribes. They did not believe he was the promised Messiah and wanted to arrest and kill him, probably so that he would not cause problems with the Romans (see John 11:47-53). Second, Mark says that at the time of his death Jesus was forsaken by his followers. Judas betrayed him. When Jesus was arrested, he was abandoned by the rest of his disciples; one of them was so eager to escape that he left his clothes in the hands of those who seized him, and ran off naked. Peter denied Jesus three times. At Jesus’ crucifixion only a few women followers were present, looking on from a distance. And third, Mark suggests that Jesus felt abandoned even by God. Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
At the same time Mark tells us that contrary to appearances, Jesus was the Messiah as he suffered and died. At his trial Jesus was asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answered, “I am.” And the Roman centurion, who had watched Jesus die, said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
As Jesus hung on the cross, the chief priests and scribes jeered, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” We can understand their point of view; Jesus did not seem to be the Messiah as he hung before them, abandoned and about to die. But as we read about the rejection of Jesus by his enemies and abandonment by his friends, we realize that we do not share their attitudes; despite appearances we believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Like the Roman centurion, we look at Jesus crucified and see the Messiah. As we ponder our own mysterious belief that Jesus is the Messiah, we realize that God has somehow revealed it to us.
Let us give thanks for the mysterious gift of our own faith and strive to grow in it.