Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year B

Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

+Liturgy of the Palms
Mark 11: 1-11 OR John 12: 12-16; Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29

The Davidic line had come to its historic end six centuries earlier. God's people had lived through wrenching trauma and spells of hope and renewal. But over those centuries the hope of a Messiah persisted. This anointed human agent of God would be from the house of David, the poertry/prohecy said, and would restore the glory of God's chosen and the grandeur of Jerusalem. The prophet Zechariah captured this ancient longing in poetry when he wrote (9:9ff): "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!/ Shout aloud, o daughter of Jerusalem!/ Lo, your king comes to you;/ triumphant and victorious is he/ humble and riding on a donkey,/ on a colt, the foal of a donkey." "He shall command peace to the nations."

(For the psalm, see comments for Passion Sunday Year A)

+Liturgy of the Word

Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-16

(See comments for Passion Sunday Year A)

Philippians 2: 5-11

Paul returns to an admonition he also made to the Corinthians (II Corinthians 5: 16-17) when he writes to the church in Philippi "have the same mind [perspective, attitude] as Christ. He continues with what seems to be an extant hymn or liturgical fragment. The hymn declares: Christ Jesus, although he was "equal" to God did not use his privilege to avoid taking on human form and submitting to human cruelty, "even death on a cross." And continues: But God transformed this humiliation into a triumph so that "every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark [14:1-15:47] or [15:1-39, 940-47]

Mark's passion narrative is raw with increasing violence, abandonment, betrayal and despair. And then-----

Violence is present in Mark's gospel from the beginning with the execution of John the Baptizer by Herod (1:14). And at the very beginning of Jesus' public life, Mark says, the religious establishment started ploted to kill him (3:6) And,we are told, Herod viewed Jesus as another rebel like that Baptizer he had executed before (6:16)

The story of those final days begins with a type of anointing, which in Mark's narrative is placed here and not after the crucifixion. Jesus emphasizes that "you will not always have me" and commends the action of the woman who "has anointed my body beforehand."

As the conversations and events of betrayal, duplicity and abandonment unfold at the meal and in Gethsemane on Passover evening, Mark describes Jesus' growing despair. He asks that if it is possible he be spared this humiliation and violent death. Jesus confesses that his "soul is very sorrowful, even to death." (14:34)

While Judas and Peter cause Jesus the most despair and disappointment, all his friends and followers fade away as it becomes dangerous to be near Jesus. "After all had abandoned him," a new follower, unique to Mark's story, appears and as quickly abandons Jesus, escaping so quickly he leaves is clothes in the hands of the arresting soldier!

After his arrest, Jesus is taken before the religious authorities. The charge is blasphemy and a specific threat to "destroy the Temple." Jesus responds to his accusers that not only is he the Messiah, he is the Son of Man, who will return with fierce judgment. But Jesus does not respond to the specific charges, allowing their confusion to prevail. The verdict of guilt by the Sanhedrin is quick and the sentence is death.

Then Jesus is handed over to the political authority, Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. Are you a rebel against the Roman Empire, a so-called "King of the Jews," Pilate asks Jesus. Jesus' answer, "You have said so," puzzles Pilate who concludes there is no grounds for conviction. But the religious leaders stir up the mob following all this closely to demand the death of Jesus. So despite his belief in Jesus' innocence, Pilate, the alert politician, placates the crowd and their leaders and hands Jesus over to be crucified. Some near-by along with Roman soldiers mock him, spit on him and hit him. The mockery followed him all the way to the cross with insults from the crowd and even an improvised sign tacked over his head, "The King of the Jews."

After carefully describing all the ways Jesus has been left alone to die and ridiculed and humiliated, Mark says Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?"

The last breath escapes his lips.

Two remarkable things happen immediately. The veil of the Temple is ripped from top to bottom. And then ---- One of the soldiers on duty that day looked up, "saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last " and muttered: "[T]his man was God's Son!" Which is the first and only time this acknowledgement is made by anyone in Mark's narrative!

Mark concludes with two incidents unique to his narrative. While a few women look on "from a distance," a stranger, Joseph of Arimathea, "boldly" asks for the corpse. And Pilate sends soldiers to make sure Jesus is dead.

Inspired by the work of Robert Alter, Paul Ricoeur wrote what he titled "Outlines of a Literary Analysis of the Passion Narratives in the Gospel of Mark," (Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination, pp 191-199). He observes the "genius" of Mark's narrative in which he discovers two powerful devises. He notes that as the narrative unfolds, the friends and followers of Jesus gradually disappear from the story. Some go after bombast then tears, Peter, some with sorrow, but most just quietly fade away or at least keep a safe distance. He also notes that Jesus offers fewer and fewer words in his own defence or explanation of who he is or what he has done in his public life. His last words are the psalmist's words of utter despair. After one final whisper of a breath, there is a brief silence. And then---- From a soldier who just happened to pull that shift that day a recognition that those closest to Jesus had never seen for themselves. "This man was God's son," the anonymous centurion says. The impact of Mark's genius is to gradually put the reader/hearer on the spot. Ricoeur writes, "From Judas who betrays him, to the disciples who flee...." "Peter's denial takes on its full weight. Starting as a negative model of the condition of being a disciple, it becomes a source of uncertainty for the reader insofar as the reader is invited to proffer an affirmation of faith with such force that it will cut the ambiguity of everything that has gone before." (p. 197)

The anonymous soldier whose presence was purely arbitrary is a stand-in for each person who hears the story up to that point and, seeing what those who were present could not see, wants to cry out "with such force that is will cut through the ambiguity of everything that has gone before," "this man was God's Son." As the followers of Jesus abandon him one by one the only person left is the soldier/reader/hearer who is invited to say what they did not say, to see what they did not see. The "genius" of Mark's passion narrative is to put the listener/reader on the spot, to make a declaration no one in the story could make, except another least likely witness, just like you!

David Foster Wallace lost a lifetime struggle with clinical depression and took his own life on September 12, 2008. But in his forty-six years of living this life, he produced some of the most remarkable fiction and non-fiction, including the novel Infinite Jest. His body of work (and life) have been portrayed as a postmodern spiritual journey by D.T Max in a moving portrait in The New Yorker (March 9, 2009). Wallace was working on his third novel and, according to Max, when his wife went through his voluminous papers and notes, she found this quote from a prose poem by Frank Bidart. He speculates that Wallace might have saved it as an epigraph for his novel. It reads: "We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed." Could that other "genius" narrator, Mark, have meant for us to "fill" the "form" of the centurion, who, in the midst of a routine workday, looked at the way Jesus died and made his decision? And if we fill this "form," we change it and "are changed" ?