Mar 25, 2018: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (B)

 

Introduction

Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entrance of Christ into Jerusalem during the feast of Passover, just days before his death.  It thus marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent, and the week in which Christians celebrate the mystery of their salvation through Christ’s death and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The Procession with Palms – Mark 11:1-10

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it
and will send it back here at once.’”
So they went off
and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street,
and they untied it.
Some of the bystanders said to them,
“What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They answered them just as Jesus had told them to,
and they permitted them to do it.
So they brought the colt to Jesus
and put their cloaks over it.
And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches
that they had cut from the fields.
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out:
“Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!”

We celebrate Palm Sunday with the gospel account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, along with a solemn procession.

This reading from Mark demonstrates several actions of Jesus that have symbolic meaning and reinterpret several royal messianic traditions.

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,

The villages of Bethphage and Bethany are close together; both were near Jerusalem, to the east.

It appears from John 12:1-2 that Jesus had spent the preceding night at Bethany; and now, the next day, he had journeyed nearer to Jerusalem, to Bethphage.  The context of the occasion is the feast of Passover, the commemoration of Israel’s liberation from bondage and new birth as an independent nation.

The point of this geographical description is to paint the dramatic scene of Jesus coming over the crest of the eastern hill at the Mount of Olives, a place long associated with the appearance of the Messiah (Zechariah 14:4).

he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately on entering it, you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here.

As we will see, Jesus does not enter the holy city on foot like a pilgrim would.  Instead, he rides in on a colt like a messianic king (Zechariah 9:9).

The fact that no one has ever ridden the colt before means that, in a sense, it has not yet been profaned.

If anyone should say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ reply, ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.’”

Another royal allusion, since kings had the right to impress privately owned animals into their service when necessary.  This is similar to how emergency officials can commandeer a private vehicle today.

So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it.

Jesus is in complete control of this incident.  He knows in advance what is available, what can be done, and what should be said.  He gives directions, and when his disciples follow, they find that he had preknowledge and authority.

So they brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks over it. And he sat on it.

A seemingly deliberate re-enactment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9.

Many people spread their cloaks on the road,

Passover is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh Regalim) during which the entire population of the kingdom of Judah made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  This explains the presence of the crowds.

The people spread their cloaks on the ground before Jesus as their ancestors had formerly done in deference to a king (2 Kings 9:13).

and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.

The Greek word for “branches” is used by Mark only. It describes the leafy boughs, which would form a kind of matting on the ground, rather than woody branches.

Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna” is technically a cry for help.  It means, “Save us, we pray!”

However, combined with the use of the branches, this seems to be a clear allusion to Psalm 118:25-27, which describes the festive procession on the Feast of Tabernacles.   Through that connection, the cry of “Hosanna, Lord” came to be an expression of messianic hope and was used as part of the liturgical greeting that met pilgrims as they entered the temple.  In this narrative, the bystanders direct the acclamation to Jesus, thus making it a cry of homage and not merely a greeting.

One who comes “in the name” of an authority figure comes as their ambassador, with the full authority of the one he represents.  This is a messianic greeting, as the Jews had long been expecting one who comes in the name of the Lord, to inaugurate the time of fulfillment, the reign of God.

Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! 

Although there were many traditions identifying this mysterious ambassador, the most common of Jesus’ day seems to have been in the Davidic tradition.  The people believed that a descendant of David would reestablish the monarchy and overthrow Roman rule.

Hosanna in the highest!”

There is a kind of chiastic structure to the entire exclamation: Hosanna / Blessed / Blessed / Hosanna.  The structure itself suggests that the one who comes in the Lord’s name and the kingdom of David that is to come are somehow intimately related.  It leads one to conclude that the kingdom will be inaugurated by the one who comes in the Lord’s name.

All of this points to Jesus’ fulfillment of the Davidic messianic expectations, which is undoubtedly reason to exalt “in the highest!”

The Procession with Palms (Alternate Reading) – John 12:12-16

When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard
that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,
they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:
“Hosanna!
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
the king of Israel.”
Jesus found an ass and sat upon it, as is written:
Fear no more, O daughter Zion;
see, your king comes, seated upon an ass’s colt.
His disciples did not understand this at first,
but when Jesus had been glorified
they remembered that these things were written about him
and that they had done this for him.

For the procession of palms, the celebrant may choose to use John’s gospel account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a reading which is quite straightforward.  Although very few details are given, they are all rich in theological meaning.

When the great crowd that had come to the feast

The feast is Passover.  Jerusalem is crowded because Passover is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh Regalim) during which the entire population of the kingdom of Judah made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.

heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,

Word has spread about Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44), and just before this passage John reports that the people had been asking after Jesus:

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?”   [John 11:55-56]

they took palm branches

Only in this version of the story do the people carry palms, a symbol of victory.  Palms were waved during the celebration of the recapture of Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 13:51); they were offered in homage to kings (1 Maccabees 13:37; 2 Maccabees 14:4); they are held by the elect as they stand before the victorious Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

and went out to meet him,

Also unique to this version, the crowds go out to meet Jesus rather than accompany him on his approach to the city.

and cried out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, 

Hosanna” is technically a cry for help.  It means, “Save us, we pray!”

However, combined with the use of the branches, this seems to be a clear allusion to Psalm 118:25-27, which describes the festive procession on the Feast of Tabernacles.   Through that connection, the cry of “Hosanna, Lord” came to be an expression of messianic hope and was used as part of the liturgical greeting that met pilgrims as they entered the temple.  In this narrative, the bystanders direct the acclamation to Jesus, thus making it a cry of homage and not merely a greeting.

One who comes “in the name” of an authority figure comes as their ambassador, with the full authority of the one he represents.  This is a messianic greeting, as the Jews had long been expecting one who comes in the name of the Lord, to inaugurate the time of fulfillment, the reign of God.

the king of Israel.”

Although there were many traditions identifying this mysterious ambassador, the most common of Jesus’ day seems to have been in the Davidic tradition.  The people believed that a descendant of David would reestablish the monarchy and overthrow Roman rule.

The jubilant waving of palms and the joyous singing of the psalm verses suggest the kind of nationalistic enthusiasm that frequently surfaced in Jerusalem during major festivals.

Jesus found an ass and sat upon it, as is written: “Fear no more, O daughter Zion; see, your king comes, seated upon an ass’s colt.”

Jesus counters any possibility of such enthusiasm with a symbolic act of his own.  Rather than reinforce the misconceptions of the people by riding into the city triumphantly on a horse, as a warrior-king, he mounts a donkey.

The author makes explicit the meaning of this action by citing an abbreviated passage from Zechariah (9:9), who described the coming of the righteous messianic king, who will bring salvation but will also be meek and riding on a donkey.

His disciples did not understand this at first, but when Jesus had been glorified they remembered that these things were written about him and that they had done this for him.

The reading ends with a declaration of the disciples’ initial lack of understanding.  The crowds had been wrong about what they anticipated, namely a triumphant conqueror.  The disciples, too, misunderstood the meaning of the events they witnessed.

Exactly how they originally perceived this event is not reported.  It would take the death and exaltation of Jesus for them to understand its meaning and to grasp just what kind of a messiah Jesus was — and what kind of messianic reign he had inaugurated.

1st Reading – Isaiah 50:4-7

The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
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 Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

Our first reading is from the third suffering servant song of the prophet Isaiah.

This passage bears a strong resemblance to many of the scriptural laments; however, there is no complaint here, only a description of the sufferings that accrue from faithfully carrying out the mission assigned by God.

The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.

God has appointed the speaker to be a kind of prophet, and provided him with the tools required for his task (that is, a well-trained tongue).  These gifts are given to the speaker, but they are for the benefit of the weary, to whom he ministers.

It is not clear who these weary might be or what the character of his rousing words are, but there seems to be an implication that the hearers are in some way downtrodden and that the words are words of comfort.

Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;

The word of God is alive and fresh each day, for God opens his ears morning after morning.  He must be always attentive to hear the word that is given.

Note that the servant takes no credit.  It is God who opens his ear; his readiness to accept God’s will is a gift of grace.

and I have not rebelled, have not turned back.

The servant does not refuse the divine vocation.

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.

A heavy price is exacted from the speaker.  Like the prophets before him (Amos 7:10-17; Micah 2:6-10; Jeremiah 20:7-18), the servant is tested by various torments.  Plucking one’s beard is a particularly grave insult.

He willingly hands himself over to be beaten and shamed.  He does not try to escape or defend himself; he does not recoil from his call.

No explanation is given as to why his prophecy should elicit such a violent response, or even who his persecutors might be.  All we know is that his ministry generates this response and the he does not abandon it or take himself out of harm’s way.

The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced;

Despite his maltreatment, he is confident that God is with him.  This is remarkable because at the time, suffering was generally thought to be the result of some kind of sin against God.  Most in his position would have interpreted his abuse as evidence that God is on the side of their persecutors.

There are no grounds for the speaker to make this claim other than utter confidence in God.

I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

A phrase frequent in prophetic preaching (Ezekiel 3:8-9; Luke 9:51). It has special meaning here, with the image of a face covered with spittle.

Note the speaker’s confidence is not that God will remove his burden, but that God is present and will help him carry out his call.

2nd Reading – Philippians 2:6-11

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Our second reading has been called “The Christ Hymn” because of the distinctive
qualities of this passage. It has a rhythmic character and a use of parallelism which have led to the view that Paul may be quoting a hymn composed independently of Philippians (possibly originally in Aramaic).

The hymn has a basic twofold structure: verses 6-8 describe Christ’s humiliation; verses 9-11 recount his exaltation.

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

This opening verse sets the tone for the actions of Christ.  This is seen as either a reference to Christ’s preexistence and those aspects of divinity that he was willing to give up in order to serve in human form, or to what the man Jesus refused to grasp at to attain divinity.

Many also see an allusion to the Genesis story of Adam.  Both Adam and Jesus were in the form and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), but Jesus did not grasp for equality with God, whereas Adam did, by way of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:5-6).

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,

Not only did he relinquish his divine privilege and status, he emptied himself of it.  The contrasts made here are noteworthy: though Christ had the form of God, he chose the form of a slave.

Without losing his divine nature, he took on the human condition.

coming in human likeness;

The qualification suggested by “likeness” points to the fact that he was human like no one else was human.  In order to truly die, he had to become truly human; however, unlike the rest of humanity, he is free of sin.

and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,

Essentially, Christ divested himself of the honors and glory of his divinity, and clothed himself with the rags of human nature.

becoming obedient to death,

This may be a reflection of the suffering servant of the Lord from Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, especially 53:12).

even death on a cross.

Crucifixion, the form of execution reserved for slaves and those who had totally forfeited all civil rights, was a cursed, painful, and shameful death. The body was nailed through the hands and feet, and hanging with all its weight upon the cross, was exposed as a public spectacle.

Having taken on the form of a slave, Jesus made himself vulnerable to all the particulars of that station in life, including a death that marked the extremity of human abasement.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

The self-denying act of Christ is matched by the active response of God: Christ’s exaltation is as glorious as his humiliation was debasing.

Note that Christ is the one who performs the self-emptying, but God is the one who takes the action in exalting him.  The superexaltation is attributed to God.

and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

This aspect of his exaltation is honor: a title of dignity.

Recall that in Jewish tradition, one’s name contains part of the essence of the individual.  Explicit mention of the name is held back until the end of the hymn.

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

This aspect of his exaltation is power: every knee bows to him, which echoes Isaiah 45:23. The homage given to God alone is now transferred to Christ.

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

The extent to which Christ is to be revered is total; the entire universe is brought under his lordship.  This includes the spiritual beings in heaven, all living beings on earth, and even the dead under the earth.

Distinctions between spiritual or physical, living or dead, are meaningless here.  All will praise Christ.

and every tongue confess

Another echo of Isaiah 45:23.

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

The name that is “above every name” is Kýrios (Lord), which came to be substituted for YHWH in Christian copies of the Septuagint Old Testament.

This climax of the hymn is an early Christian confession of faith (see 1 Corinthians 12:3;
Romans 10:9).

to the glory of God the Father.

It is to the glory of God the Father to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Whatever respect is paid to Christ reflects honor of the Father (John 5:23).

He who in selfless obedience took on the powerlessness of a slave now through divine commission and investiture holds universal lordship (see 1 Corinthians 3:21-23; Romans 14:9).

Gospel – Mark 14:1-15:47

The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread
were to take place in two days’ time.
So the chief priests and the scribes were seeking a way
to arrest him by treachery and put him to death.
They said, “Not during the festival,
for fear that there may be a riot among the people.”

When he was in Bethany reclining at table
in the house of Simon the leper,
a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,
costly genuine spikenard.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.
There were some who were indignant.
“Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?
It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages
and the money given to the poor.”
They were infuriated with her.
Jesus said, “Let her alone.
Why do you make trouble for her?
She has done a good thing for me.
The poor you will always have with you,
and whenever you wish you can do good to them,
but you will not always have me.
She has done what she could.
She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.
Amen, I say to you,
wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve,
went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them.
When they heard him they were pleased and promised to pay him money.
Then he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,
his disciples said to him,
“Where do you want us to go
and prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
He sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the city and a man will meet you,
carrying a jar of water.
Follow him.
Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house,
‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room
where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’
Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.
Make the preparations for us there.”
The disciples then went off, entered the city,
and found it just as he had told them;
and they prepared the Passover.

When it was evening, he came with the Twelve.
And as they reclined at table and were eating, Jesus said,
“Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me,
one who is eating with me.”
They began to be distressed and to say to him, one by one,
“Surely it is not I?”
He said to them,
“One of the Twelve, the one who dips with me into the dish.
For the Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him,
but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.
It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”

While they were eating,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them, and said,
“Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them,
and they all drank from it.
He said to them,
“This is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed for many.
Amen, I say to you,
I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine
until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
Then, after singing a hymn,
they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them,
“All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written:
I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be dispersed.

But after I have been raised up,
I shall go before you to Galilee.”
Peter said to him,
“Even though all should have their faith shaken,
mine will not be.”
Then Jesus said to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
this very night before the cock crows twice
you will deny me three times.”
But he vehemently replied,
“Even though I should have to die with you,
I will not deny you.”
And they all spoke similarly.
Then they came to a place named Gethsemane,
and he said to his disciples,
“Sit here while I pray.”
He took with him Peter, James, and John,
and began to be troubled and distressed.
Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death.
Remain here and keep watch.”
He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed
that if it were possible the hour might pass by him;
he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you.
Take this cup away from me,
but not what I will but what you will.”
When he returned he found them asleep.
He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep?
Could you not keep watch for one hour?
Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test.
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing.
Then he returned once more and found them asleep,
for they could not keep their eyes open
and did not know what to answer him.
He returned a third time and said to them,
“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?
It is enough. The hour has come.
Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners.
Get up, let us go.
See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Then, while he was still speaking,
Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived,
accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs
who had come from the chief priests,
the scribes, and the elders.
His betrayer had arranged a signal with them, saying,
“The man I shall kiss is the one;
arrest him and lead him away securely.”
He came and immediately went over to him and said,
“Rabbi.” And he kissed him.
At this they laid hands on him and arrested him.
One of the bystanders drew his sword,
struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Have you come out as against a robber,
with swords and clubs, to seize me?
Day after day I was with you teaching in the temple area,
yet you did not arrest me;
but that the Scriptures may be fulfilled.”
And they all left him and fled.
Now a young man followed him
wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body.
They seized him,
but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.

They led Jesus away to the high priest,
and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together.
Peter followed him at a distance into the high priest’s courtyard
and was seated with the guards, warming himself at the fire.
The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin
kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus
in order to put him to death, but they found none.
Many gave false witness against him,
but their testimony did not agree.
Some took the stand and testified falsely against him,
alleging, “We heard him say,
‘I will destroy this temple made with hands
and within three days I will build another
not made with hands.’”
Even so their testimony did not agree.
The high priest rose before the assembly and questioned Jesus,
saying, “Have you no answer?
What are these men testifying against you?”
But he was silent and answered nothing.
Again the high priest asked him and said to him,
“Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”
Then Jesus answered, “I am;
and ‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power
and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
At that the high priest tore his garments and said,
“hat further need have we of witnesses?
You have heard the blasphemy.
What do you think?”
They all condemned him as deserving to die.
Some began to spit on him.
They blindfolded him and struck him and said to him, “Prophesy!”
And the guards greeted him with blows.

While Peter was below in the courtyard,
one of the high priest’s maids came along.
Seeing Peter warming himself,
she looked intently at him and said,
“You too were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”
But he denied it saying,
“I neither know nor understand what you are talking about.”
So he went out into the outer court.
Then the cock crowed.
The maid saw him and began again to say to the bystanders,
“This man is one of them.”
Once again he denied it.
A little later the bystanders said to Peter once more,
“Surely you are one of them; for you too are a Galilean.”
He began to curse and to swear,
“I do not know this man about whom you are talking.”
And immediately a cock crowed a second time.
Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him,
“Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.”
He broke down and wept.

As soon as morning came,
the chief priests with the elders and the scribes,
that is, the whole Sanhedrin held a council.
They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.
Pilate questioned him,
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
He said to him in reply, “You say so.”
The chief priests accused him of many things.
Again Pilate questioned him,
“Have you no answer?
See how many things they accuse you of.”
Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them
one prisoner whom they requested.
A man called Barabbas was then in prison
along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion.
The crowd came forward and began to ask him
to do for them as he was accustomed.
Pilate answered,
“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”
For he knew that it was out of envy
that the chief priests had handed him over.
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd
to have him release Barabbas for them instead.
Pilate again said to them in reply,
“Then what do you want me to do
with the man you call the king of the Jews?”
They shouted again, “Crucify him.”
Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?”
They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”
So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd,
released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged,
handed him over to be crucified.

The soldiers led him away inside the palace,
that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort.
They clothed him in purple and,
weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him.
They began to salute him with, AHail, King of the Jews!”
and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him.
They knelt before him in homage.
And when they had mocked him,
they stripped him of the purple cloak,
dressed him in his own clothes,
and led him out to crucify him.

They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon,
a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country,
the father of Alexander and Rufus,
to carry his cross.

They brought him to the place of Golgotha
— which is translated Place of the Skull —
They gave him wine drugged with myrrh,
but he did not take it.
Then they crucified him and divided his garments
by casting lots for them to see what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.
The inscription of the charge against him read,
“The King of the Jews.”
With him they crucified two revolutionaries,
one on his right and one on his left.
Those passing by reviled him,
shaking their heads and saying,
“Aha! You who would destroy the temple
and rebuild it in three days,
save yourself by coming down from the cross.”
Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes,
mocked him among themselves and said,
“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.”
Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.

At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, he is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed
and gave it to him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

[Here all kneel and pause for a short time.]

The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.
When the centurion who stood facing him
saw how he breathed his last he said,
“Truly this man was the Son of God!”
There were also women looking on from a distance.
Among them were Mary Magdalene,
Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome.
These women had followed him when he was in Galilee
and ministered to him.
There were also many other women
who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

When it was already evening,
since it was the day of preparation,
the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea,
a distinguished member of the council,
who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God,
came and courageously went to Pilate
and asked for the body of Jesus.
Pilate was amazed that he was already dead.
He summoned the centurion
and asked him if Jesus had already died.
And when he learned of it from the centurion,
he gave the body to Joseph.
Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down,
wrapped him in the linen cloth,
and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.
Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses
watched where he was laid.

The passion account from Mark’s gospel is a continuous narrative with a coherent chronological sequence.  Each scene within it, though a discrete story in itself, is connected with what precedes it and moves the drama resolutely forward.

In the arc of Mark’s entire gospel, the cross is depicted as Jesus’ way to glory in accordance with the divine will.  The passion narrative is therefore seen as its climax.

The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were to take place in two days’ time.

The connection between these two festivals is reflected in Exodus 12:3-20 and 34:18, Leviticus 23:4-8, Numbers 9:2-14 and 28:16-17, Deuteronomy 16:1-8.

The Passover commemorated the redemption from slavery and the departure of the Israelites from Egypt by night.  It began at sundown after the Passover lamb was sacrificed in the temple in the afternoon of the 14th day of the month of Nisan.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread began on the same evening as the Passover supper and continued through Nisan 21.  Eating unleavened bread was a reminder of the affliction of the Israelites and of the haste surrounding their departure.

At this dual feast, praise and thanksgiving to God for his goodness in the past were combined with the hope of future salvation.

So the chief priests and the scribes were seeking a way to arrest him by treachery and put him to death.

Mark’s gospel recounts the major events within a prearranged plan, as seen in the foreshadowing here.  The chief priests and scribes have been plotting since Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city and his cleansing of the temple several days prior.

They said, “Not during the festival, for fear that there may be a riot among the people.”

The Passover was the most important of the three feasts whose observance was incumbent upon every male Jew over the age of 12 (Exodus 23:14-17). Since there were large crowds in Jerusalem and because of his popularity, there was a risk that his public execution might start a riot.

They would either need to hasten their plan or wait until after the feast; however, after the feast, Jesus and his disciples would likely leave Jerusalem and be much more difficult to arrest.

The reference to one of Judaism’s highest holy days brings into focus the sharp contrast between the devout religious observance of Jesus and his disciples and the hypocrisy of his enemies.

When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper,

This must refer to an affliction from which Simon has already been cured; otherwise, he would have been unclean and not allowed to dine with the others.  It is likely that he was referred to this way to distinguish him from others named Simon.

Regardless, this highlights Jesus’ tendency to associate with those relegated to the margins of society.

a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, 

In John’s gospel, this woman is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 12:2-3).  She is identified by others as Mary Magdalene.

costly genuine spikenard.

The Vulgate has nardi spicati, which was a precious ointment and celebrated aromatic made from the flowers of a rare bearded plant of the East Indies.  It is referred to as “genuine” because there was an inferior counterfeit also in circulation.

She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.

Alabaster is a kind of soft, smooth marble which could easily be scooped out so as to form a receptacle for ointment.  These vessels were usually formed with a long narrow neck, which could easily be broken or crushed.  The verb for “broke” may also simply mean that she broke the seal, similar to the way we might say someone “broke open” a container without actually damaging it.

There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her.

While Mark avoiding any specifically identifying the disciples who objected, John tells us that it was Judas Iscariot (John 12:4).

The Greek verb used is embrimáomai, which literally means to snort or roar with rage.

Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me.

She probably intended nothing more than a show of her great honor; however, Christ takes her action and makes of it something even more.

The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me.

Jesus reminds them that charity to the poor does not excuse believers from acts of piety.  They will have many opportunities to minister to the poor; here he gives another hint of his approaching departure.  His bodily presence among them is fleeting.

She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.

Another example of foreshadowing of Jesus’ death.  As we will later see, in the haste to remove Jesus’ body from the cross before the sabbath, he was not anointed in the normal way before burial.

Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

He assures the woman of the remembrance of her deed in the worldwide preaching of the good news; note that we are hearing it now, some 2,000 years later.

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests to hand him over to them. When they heard him they were pleased and promised to pay him money. Then he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

Judas’ betrayal follows immediately after the anointing by Mary.  It seems that the other disciples were brought to their senses by Jesus’ rebuke, but with Judas, it only served to harden him.

It marks the tremendous iniquity of the betrayal that it was “one of the twelve” who betrayed him — not one of the seventy, but one of those who were closest to him.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,

As mentioned earlier, the Passover sacrifice took place on the 14th of Nisan, which was also the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He sent two of his disciples

Luke 22:8 informs us that these two were Peter and John.

and said to them, “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him.

This is a unique image, since men didn’t carry water in jars (as women did), they carried it in skins.  However, the Greek word used here implies simply a person and not necessarily a male.

Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Make the preparations for us there.” The disciples then went off, entered the city, and found it just as he had told them; 

Similar to the account of Jesus’ foreknowledge in securing the colt for his ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he describes in advance the circumstances surrounding the preparations for the Passover meal.  The fact that no amazement is expressed by the disciples causes some commentators to believe that everything had been prearranged.

and they prepared the Passover.

This would consist of obtaining the Paschal lamb and taking it to the temple to be sacrificed by the priests. It would then be brought to the house to be cooked; the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs and the wine would have to be provided, as well as the water for purification.

After all these preparations had been made, the two disciples returned to their Master.

When it was evening, he came with the Twelve.

The Passover meal was to be eaten between sundown and midnight. Peter and John have returned from their preparation, and the twelve (including Judas Iscariot) all went back with their Master to Jerusalem.

And as they reclined at table and were eating, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”

This statement contrasts the intimacy of table fellowship with the treachery of the traitor.

Psalm 41:9 (41:10 in the New American Bible) states:  Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.

They began to be distressed and to say to him, one by one, “Surely it is not I?” He said to them, “One of the Twelve, the one who dips with me into the dish. 

The dish probably contained a sauce called charoseth, into which they dipped their food before eating it.

For the Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.

Scripture tells us that it was foreordained by God that Christ was to suffer as a victim for the sins of the whole world (for example, in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 41); hence Jesus’ assertion that “the Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him.”

It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”

This predestined purpose of God that Christ should suffer and die does not lessen the guilt of the betrayer.

While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.”

Within the framework of the Passover meal, the actions and words of Jesus express the transition to a new covenant, offering himself as the covenant sacrifice in anticipation of his passion and death.

This is the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant,

This is the only time that Jesus speaks of “covenant.” A covenant is a family bond which is sealed both by blood and the sharing of a communal meal.

which will be shed for many.

Hyper, the Greek preposition used here “for many,” is different one from the one used in Matthew’s account of the Last Supper, but the same as that found in Luke’s.  The sense of both words is vicarious, and it is difficult in Hellenistic Greek to distinguish between them.

In either case, “many” does not mean that some are excluded, but is a Semitism designating the collectivity who benefit from the service of the one, and is equivalent to “all.”

Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Additional foreshadowing of Jesus’ impending death.

Then, after singing a hymn,

Traditionally, the Great Hallel (Psalms 114 through 118), songs of thanksgiving, are sung to conclude the Passover meal.

they went out to the Mount of Olives.

The hill east of Jerusalem beyond the Kidron Valley.

In the last days of his life, Jesus had a kind of daily routine of going to Jerusalem to teach in the temple, returning to Bethany for dinner, and then retiring to the Mount of Olives to pray (Luke 21:37).

Obviously they have already eaten, so they go directly to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be dispersed.’

He cites Zechariah 13:7, accurately predicting that their hope and trust in him will give way to fear and doubt.

But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.”

Jesus reassures them that after his resurrection he would regather them in Galilee, where he first summoned them to be his followers at the beginning of his ministry.

Galilee was more like home to them than Jerusalem, and there they would be less afraid of the unbelieving Jews.

Peter said to him, “Even though all should have their faith shaken, mine will not be.”

An extremely presumptuous statement, given that Jesus had just distinctly stated that they would all falter.

Everyday believers often identify strongly with Peter.  We often think that we are strong in the faith, but when temptation arises, we stumble.

Then Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.”

This second crowing of the cock is mentioned by Mark only, and stands in bright contrast to his denial of weakness.

The “cockcrowing” was a term used for one of the divisions of the night (see Mark 13:35). There were three times at which the cock-crowing might be expected: 1) early in the night, between eleven and twelve; 2) between one and two; and 3) between five and six.

The two cockcrowings Jesus is referring to would be the first two of the three here mentioned. It would probably be about 2 a.m., when the first trial of our Lord took place in the house of Caiaphas.

But he vehemently replied, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all spoke similarly.

The imperfect tense of the Greek implies that he kept asserting this over and over again. He was, no doubt, sincere — but he had yet to learn his own weakness.

“Peter was so carried away by the fervor of his zeal and love for Christ, that he regarded neither the weakness of his own flesh nor the truth of his Master’s word.” [St. Hilary]

Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 

The Greek word translated here as “a place” (xōríon) literally refers to an enclosed piece of ground, generally with a cottage upon it. Josephus tells us that gardens like these were numerous in the suburbs of Jerusalem.

The exact position of Gethsemane is not known, but St. Jerome tells us that it was at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

Gethsemane was well known to be Jesus’ favorite places to pray; John 18:2 suggests that Jesus went there to intentionally put himself in the way of Judas, who would naturally seek him there.

He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed.

Jesus separates himself from all the disciples except his inner circle. Those who had witnessed the transfiguration (Mark 9:2) and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37) were now invited to witness his anguish.

Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.”

Christ’s sufferings began with the most painful of all, those in his soul.  Every word carries the emphasis of an overwhelming grief.

He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed

Jesus now separates himself from even the smaller group.  Luke 22:41 says he only went about a stone’s throw away.

Lying with one’s face to the ground was a praying posture.

that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.”

Christ does not ask for anything contrary to the will of his Father; however, it was the natural craving of his humanity, which, subject to the supreme will of God, desired to be delivered from this terrible load.

The “cup” was a common reference to signify the lot or portion which is appointed for us by God.

When he returned he found them asleep.

Luke’s version says that they were “sleeping for sorrow” (Luke 22:45), similar to how they were “heavy with sleep” on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:32).

He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 

This rebuke, pointedly addressed to Peter, seems to be made in deliberate light of his earnest pledges of fidelity from just a short while earlier.

Note that Jesus calls him by his old name of Simon.

Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test.

The great temptation of the disciples was to deny Christ under the influence of fear. Here, Jesus gives the true remedy against temptation: watchfulness and prayer.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

Jesus acknowledges the disciples’ weakness and the weakness of all mankind.

It seems that he trusts that in their hearts and minds, they are ready to stand by him, but their mortal humanity is weak.

“In whatever degree we trust to the ardor of the spirit, in the same degree ought we to fear because of the infirmity of the flesh.” [St. Jerome]

Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open

The Greek states that their eyes were katabaréō, literally, very heavily weighed down.  They had not deliberately yielded themselves to sleep.

and did not know what to answer him.

They have no excuse except for their own human frailty.

He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?

The sinful weakness of Christ’s disciples returns and overpowers them again and again.

It is enough. The hour has come. 

Contrast to the times before when the Jews were unable to arrest or kill Jesus because his hour had not yet come.

Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Note that the group of “sinners” who approach is a blend of Jews, Gentiles, and even one of Jesus’ own apostles.

Then, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs who had come from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.

A band of soldiers along with civil officers sent by the Sanhedrin. The wording makes Judas appear to be the leader; however, this is unlikely. He is more like their guide, since he knew the area and would need to identify Jesus to the guards.

His betrayer had arranged a signal with them, saying, “The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him and lead him away securely.”

The kiss was an ancient mode of salutation among the Jews, the Romans, and other nations (see Proverbs 27:6).

Why was Judas so anxious about Christ being led away “securely”?  He may have feared a rescue, or that Jesus would hide himself or escape by performing a miracle.

He came and immediately went over to him and said, “Rabbi.” And he kissed him. At this they laid hands on him and arrested him.

The Greek is kataphiléō, which means “kissed him much” or “kissed him fervently.”   Paired with his respectful address of Jesus as rabbi, this highlights Judas’ hypocrisy.

One of the bystanders drew his sword, struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear.

This bystander is named only in John (18:10) as Peter. John also names the servant (Malchus). It’s likely that Peter was aiming for the top of his head and missed, cutting off his ear.  His zeal is admirable, but misguided.

Luke’s account tells us Jesus touched the slave’s ear and healed him instantly.

Jesus said to them in reply, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs, to seize me? Day after day I was with you teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me; 

Matthew’s account states the Jesus rebuked his disciples for their resistance before turning to rebuke those who were arresting him (Matthew 26:52).

Jesus was a preacher who taught love and peace, yet they came in a crowd with swords and clubs, as if he had been in arms against the government.

but that the scriptures may be fulfilled.”

Despite this injurious and ignorant treatment, Jesus submits to the arrest so that the Scriptures may be fulfilled.

And they all left him and fled.

His disciples desert him.

Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. 

Mark is the only gospel writer who mentions this incident.  The identity of the man is unknown; popular theories include that he is John the apostle, James, or John-Mark.

The word for the cloth is sindon, a fine linen cloth, indicating that the wearer probably belonged to a family in good circumstances.  It might be that this man was roused from bed by the noise (perhaps he lived in the cottage at Gethsamane) and put on the sindon as a robe before leaving his house to attend the scene.

In any case, sindon is an unusual word. In every other place of the New Testament where it is used, it refers to the garment or shroud used to cover the bodies of the dead.

They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.

It is unclear why he was pursued by the soldiers.  Perhaps they mistook him for a disciple, or perhaps they were overly aggressive because the others had escaped.

It’s possible that Mark included this detail to show the certainty that the disciples would have also been arrested if they hadn’t run away.

They led Jesus away to the high priest, and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together.

The Sanhedrin convenes.  The members may have been prepared ahead of time to be called at any hour of the night, if they were successful in arresting Jesus.

Peter followed him at a distance into the high priest’s courtyard and was seated with the guards,

This court was the place where the guards and servants of the high priest were assembled. Jesus was inside, in a large room, being arraigned before the council.

It was quite brave for Peter to come here, especially considering that he had just cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant.

warming himself at the fire.

The weather was cold, for it was early springtime and it was now after midnight.

The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none. Many gave false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.

Their goal was to put him to death; however, under Roman rule, the death penalty was a sentence only Roman authorities could deliver.  They are seeking testimony to take as evidence to Pilate.

Jewish court procedure did not have an official prosecuting attorney; the witnesses served as the prosecutors. Witnesses for the defense were heard first, then those for the prosecution. In capital cases, the testimony of at least two witnesses had to agree.

Some took the stand and testified falsely against him, alleging, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.’” Even so their testimony did not agree.

According to John 2:19, Jesus actually said, “Destroy this temple; and in three days I will raise it up.”  The witnesses pervert the account and assign to Jesus the work of destruction which he had left to the Jews.  They are also indirectly suggesting that he must be a sorcerer, magician, or madman to pretend to build a temple in three days.

The high priest rose before the assembly and questioned Jesus, saying, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” 

Since even the false witnesses can’t agree, the high priest takes over.  He would traditionally be seated at the top of the semicircle, with the members of the Sanhedrin on either side of him, and the accused in front of him. Now he rises from his seat, and comes forward into the midst (Greek: eis ho mesos), and demands an answer.

But he was silent and answered nothing.

It would have been a long and tedious process to answer to this vague and inaccurate charge. Silence was the most dignified treatment of such an accusation.

He also knew that his hour had come.  Isaiah 53:7 states, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.”

Again the high priest asked him and said to him, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?”

Jesus had frequently declared himself to be the Son of God. Caiaphas, therefore, now asks the question directly, not because he was seeking God or wanted the information, but that he might condemn him.

Then Jesus answered, “I am;

A clear affirmative answer.

and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

A reference to Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13.  Jesus seems to be alluding to the fact that while they stand in judgment of him now, these roles will ultimately be reversed.

At that the high priest tore his garments

The Greek verb translated as “tore” implies violent dramatic action.  Ripping one’s clothing was an expression of indignation and grief, and was the usual reaction to hearing blasphemy.

and said, “What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy.

Jesus has blasphemed by claiming that he will sit at God’s right hand and act as judge in God’s kingdom. They have all heard it and thus themselves become the condemning witnesses they are seeking.   There is therefore no further need to identify witnesses.

What do you think?” They all condemned him as deserving to die.

The high priest pretends to put the question to a vote, but he has already declared the judgment of blasphemy.  He has voted first, but by protocol he ought to have voted last.

According to Leviticus 24, the penalty should have been stoning.

Some began to spit on him. They blindfolded him and struck him and said to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards greeted him with blows.

Recalls Isaiah 50:6, today’s first reading.

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the high priest’s maids came along.

Peter’s denying Christ actually began by keeping distance from him.  While others were in the high priest’s chamber offering false testimony against Jesus, Peter could have been there witnessing for him.

When Christ was admired and sought after, Peter readily stood by him; but he has disowned him now that he is deserted and despised.

Seeing Peter warming himself, she looked intently at him and said, “You too were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”

Peter’s features could be clearly seen in the light of the fire.

But he denied it saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are talking about.” So he went out into the outer court. (Then the cock crowed.)

Peter’s first denial.  He is afraid to associate with Christ, even to a servant girl.

Note how emphatic his denial is. He pretends to not even know who Jesus is, much less that he is a disciple, much less an apostle, much less one of his closest friends in the inner circle.

The maid saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” Once again he denied it.

His second denial, to the maid and the bystanders.  It is unclear whether this maid is the same servant that first recognized him.

A little later the bystanders said to Peter once more, “Surely you are one of them; for you too are a Galilean.”

The Galilean dialect was very recognizable, and actually considered corrupt.  It had a more Syrian cast than that of Judea.

The bystanders knew that Jesus had preached and performed miracles most in Galilee, and that he had a large number of followers there.

He began to curse

The word means “to anathematize,” or wish himself accursed if what he was now to say was not true.

and to swear,

To take a solemn oath.

“I do not know this man about whom you are talking.”

Peter’s third denial.

And immediately a cock crowed a second time.

The first cock crow would have been around 1:00 AM, and the second around 5:00 or 6:00; an indication of how long the proceedings upstairs lasted.

Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.” He broke down and wept.

The Greek used here for “wept” implies a long and continued weeping.

Note the speed of Peter’s repentance, which was immediate.  He is an inspiration for those who have fallen away.

As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council.

Based on the cock-crowing, the proceedings we just read about probably terminated between five and six.  Now, a formal trial is initiated in the morning.

They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.

Mark doesn’t provide the explicit detail that the council finds him guilty, which is why he is bound and led away.

Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judea from A.D. 26 to 36. His headquarters were in Caesaria Maritima, but he went to Jerusalem during the great feasts, when the influx of pilgrims posed the danger of a nationalistic riot.

The Jews deliver Jesus to Pilate for a separate hearing, because under Roman rule they were not allowed to put anyone to death without the authority of the governor.

Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

It is unclear whether Pilate had previously heard that Jesus and/or his followers had claimed royalty, or whether the Jews had suggested to Pilate was his crime.  Based on Jesus’ admission to the high priest that he was the Messiah, it is likely the latter.

Regardless, the question obviously affected the position of Caesar, which is Pilate’s focus and priority.

He said to him in reply, “You say so.”

Some commentators see this as an affirmative answer; others claim that it is noncommittal.  Perhaps Jesus is avoiding a denial of the ultimate truth of the title, while simultaneously rejecting the political framework which Pilate applies to it.

The chief priests accused him of many things.

We know from Luke 23:1-5 that when Pilate demanded particularly what the charges against Jesus were, they alleged these three things: 1) that he perverted the nation; 2) that he forbade to give tribute to Caesar; 3) that he said that he was Christ, a King.

Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accuse you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

As we will soon see, Pilate is aware of evil motivations of the chief priests.  His only concern is the Roman perspective, not Jewish law.  Jesus could have easily renounced any threat to Caesar and probably spared his own life.

Instead, the man who had so often silenced the Scribes and Pharisees is now silent.

Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested.

The custom of the Roman governor releasing a prisoner to the people on a feast day seems to be Roman in origin, not Jewish.  It was probably intended to gain favor with the people.

A man called Barabbas was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion.

The name is better written as “Bar-Abbas,” which means “son of father.”  There is a clear irony in the choice between him and Jesus, the true “Son of the Father.”

The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed.

That is, release a prisoner to them, as he had done at every Passover since becoming governor.

It should be noted that outside of the gospels there is no direct attestation to this custom; scholars are divided in their judgment of the historical reliability of the claim that there was such a practice.

Pilate answered, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”

This account passes over the fact that a trial must have been completed and Jesus had been declared guilty. Pilate is presenting the crowd with a choice between two condemned prisoners.

Pilate apparently assumes that by limiting their choice between Barabbas (a murderer) and Jesus (a popular and peaceful rabbi), they would choose Jesus.

For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed him over.

Perhaps Pilate could perceive this because of general lack of evidence against Jesus, compared with the sentence they requested — as well as Jesus’ fame and reputation as a preacher and healer, which likely eclipsed that of the chief priests.

At any rate, it was clear to Pilate that Jesus was not a threat to Rome.

But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

Matthew 27:20 states, “They persuaded the multitudes” (peithó tous).

Mark’s word here, anaseió (“to shake up or excite”) implies a rousing of their bad passions, agitating them to a blind zeal for his crucifixion.

Some scholars think that the Jewish leaders packed the crowd with their servants and henchmen, and thus were able to control it.  Because Jesus had been arrested very late the night before, most of the people in Jerusalem probably didn’t even know that he was in custody.

Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what do you want me to do with the man you call the king of the Jews?” They shouted again, “Crucify him.”

The use of the word “again” here has the support of the best manuscripts, and indicates that Pilate inwardly struggled with his decision.

Pilate has attempted to transfer the decision to the Jews, thinking that they might choose to have him spared. Note the way that puts the question before them, speaking of Jesus as one whom “they called the King of the Jews.” He seems to be shrewdly appealing to their national pride and their national hopes.

Crucifixion is a peculiarly horrible form of Roman capital punishment, typically reserved for slaves and non-citizens.

Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?”

That is, what evil has he done to warrant death?

The chief priests had charged him with many things, but proved nothing against him. Pilate could find no fault in him, and judged him an innocent person.

They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.”

They insist on not only executing him, but executing him by crucifixion.

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, 

Because of previous difficulties with riots and uprisings, Pilate would have been predisposed to avoid trouble at any cost, especially when the city was packed for Passover.

released Barabbas to them

The Jews have chosen a murderer over a holy and just man.

and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.

Luke and John provide more details around this portion of the story. From their narratives it appears that when Pilate found that his attempt to spare Jesus by contrasting Barabbas with him failed, he next hoped to move the multitude to pity by the terrible punishment of scourging, after which he trusted that they would relent.

Scourging was a vile punishment, inflicted on slaves. But it was also used on those who were condemned to crucifixion, to weaken them before affixing them to the cross.  It was frightfully severe. Horace (‘Sat.’ 1:3, 119) speaks of it as “horrible flagellum.”

In John 21:1, it appears that the scourging of Jesus took place before his formal condemnation to be crucified; it’s possible that the scourging was intended to be Jesus’ full sentence before the crowd pressed for crucifixion.

The soldiers led him away inside the palace, that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort.

The praetorium was the judgment hall; the room where the praetor, or Roman magistrate, kept his court of judicature.  This was the principal court of the palace, where a large number of soldiers were always quartered.

They clothed him in purple

Matthew 27:28 says it was a scarlet cloak, probably a military tunic. Here, it is royal purple; purple being a very expensive dye, reserved strictly for royalty and the rich who could afford it.

Here, it is obviously meant to mock Jesus as the King of the Jews.

and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him.

Again, part of the mockery. It was likely woven from the Zizyphus spina Christi, which grows abundantly in Palestine, fringing the banks of the Jordan. This plant would be very suitable for this torturous purpose, having flexible branches, with leaves very much resembling the ivy leaf in their color, and with many sharp thorns. The pain arising from the pressure of these sharp thorns upon the head must have been excruciating.

They began to salute him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

This is the charge of which Jesus has been convicted. It is also a parody of the imperial acclimation “Hail, Caesar, victor, imperator.”

and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him. They knelt before him in homage.

Matthew 27:29-30) tells us that they placed a reed into his right hand, as a symbol of a scepter.  Now they remove it and hit him with it, driving the thorns from the crown into his head.

And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, dressed him in his own clothes,

With his mockery complete, Jesus is further humiliated by being stripped and dressed in his own garments.  This might have been so that he would be more easily recognizable while he was led to the site of the crucifixion, and/or so that the soldiers could later take his garments for themselves.

and led him out to crucify him.

Assuming that Pilate’s palace was near the gate of Jaffa, north-west of Mount Zion, and that the place of crucifixion was where we now best know it to be (within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre), the distance would be about one-third of a mile.

They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.

A colony of Jews had been in Cyrene, North Africa ever since the 4th century B.C.  Simon was probably a Jew of the diaspora visiting Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He seems to be a total stranger.

It seems from Matthew 27:32 that Jesus bore his own cross from the palace to the gate of the city, where they encountered Simon.

The precise naming of Simon and his sons is probably due to their being known among the early Christian believers to whom Mark addressed his gospel.  Paul, writing to the Romans (Romans 16:13), sends a special salutation to Rufus.

They brought him to the place of Golgotha (which is translated Place of the Skull).

A Greek transliteration of the Aramaic gulgulta; a word which means “skull.”  The Latin word is calvariae, from which the English “Calvary” is derived.

It may have been named for the configuration of the place itself, perhaps a round-like mound, or knoll.  Hebrew legend has it as the burial place of Adam’s skull:

“When Noah the righteous left the ark, after the waters of the flood had receded and the face of the earth was revealed, he came with his sons first to Mount Moriah. There they sacrificed a thank offering to the Lord, on the same spot where Adam had sacrificed and where Abraham, generations later, brought his offering… On a nearby hill, Shem, the son of Noah, interred the skull of Adam, which he had taken with him into the ark and guarded during the flood. Since then the hill is called Golgotha – the Skull” (Zev Vilnay, Legends of Jerusalem, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1973, page 70).

They gave him wine drugged with myrrh,

This was a kind of liquor, a strong narcotic made by combining sour wine with bitter herbs, and mercifully administered to dull the sense of pain.

but he did not take it.

He would not accept any alleviation of the agonies; he would bear the full burden consciously.

Recall that Jesus said he would not drink wine again until he drinks it in the reign of God (Mark 14:25).

Then they crucified him

After providing a lengthy build-up to this point, Mark states the fact of the crucifixion without expounding on the painful circumstances connected with the act of nailing him to the cross. He quickly moves on to the mention of other things.

and divided his garments by casting lots for them to see what each should take.

Those who were crucified were stripped totally naked, leaving them with no dignity at all.

Roman custom permitted the soldiers to take the prisoner’s clothes as a kind of payment for their services, but the description of the procedure is clearly inspired by Psalm 22:18-19. John 19:23 says one piece was seamless, which would have made it very valuable.  The high priest, for example, wore a seamless tunic when he entered the Holy of Holies.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.

The third hour would literally be nine o’clock, although the exact timing is unclear.

Mark may have intended the chronological sequence in his account to reflect liturgical or catechetical considerations rather than the precise historical sequence of events.  For example, he may have noted this particular time of the crucifixion because it was normally the time of the daily sacrifice of the morning, at which the priests ought to have been.

The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”

All four gospel writers mention the inscription; but no two of them in precisely the same words. It appears by comparison of them that the whole title was, This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

The accusation of notable convicts was written on a white tablet and carried before them as they went to the place of execution. It was then placed over their heads when the cross was erected. John tells us that our Lord’s title was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Such appears to be the proper order of the words; namely, the national, the official, and the common dialect.

With him they crucified two revolutionaries, one on his right and one on his left.

Not necessarily thieves but social revolutionists like Barabbas, and what Jesus is supposed by the Romans to be.

We know from Luke 23:40 that one of these revolutionaries was saved, while it appears that the other died in his sins.

“This cross, if you mark it well, was a judgment-seat. For the Judge being placed in the midst, the one who believed was set free; the other who reviled him was condemned; and thus he signified what he will do with the quick and the dead. Some he will place on his right hand, and some on his left” (Augustine, Tract. 31 in S. Johan.).

Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross.”

The first group of mockers repeat the first charge raised about him, the destruction of the Temple (see Mark 14:58).

Calvary was probably near to one of the thoroughfares leading to the city, so there would be a continual stream of persons passing by; especially at Passover, when Jerusalem was thronged with visitors.

This aggravation of Christ’s misery was another fulfillment of prophecy: “All they that see me laugh me to scorn they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, seeing he delighteth in him” (Psalm 22:7, 8).

The torment of crucifixion itself was terrible; it was still greater torment to be insulted in his agony by those he came to minister to.  The Creator has been murdered and mocked by his own creatures.

Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes, mocked him among themselves and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.

The chief priests allege he worked miracles by the power of Satan, not by God — which they claim is proven by the fact that if he were of God, God would certainly have intervened and set him free.

Note that they do not deny the fact that he has performed miracles and “saved others.”

Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”

This second group of mockers repeat the second charge raised against him, his Messiahship (see Mark 14:61).

Christ might have come down from the cross; but he would not, because it was his Father’s will that he should die upon the cross to redeem us from death.

Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.

With this third group of mockers, the mockery is complete: even the insurgents next to him participate.

At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

This supernatural darkness occurs at the brightest part of the day.

We are not informed precisely how far the darkness extended (this is why “land” is a better rendering than “earth”). Dionysius says that he saw this phenomenon at Heliopolis, in Egypt.

An account of this is given by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of the Emperor Adrian. Eusebius, in his records, quotes at length from Phlegon, who says that, in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was a great and remarkable eclipse of the sun, above any that had happened before. At the sixth hour, the day was turned into the darkness of night, so that stars were seen in the heaven; and there was a great earthquake in Bithynia, which destroyed many houses in the city of Nicaea. Phlegon attributes the darkness to an eclipse, which was natural enough for him to do; however, Passover is always celebrated during a full moon, during which a solar eclipse cannot occur.

And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Mark uses the Aramaic form, whereas Matthew refers to the original Hebrew. It is very likely that Mark took his form from St. Peter.

It is generally supposed that Jesus, continually praying upon his cross, and offering himself a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, recited the whole of the Psalm 22, of which these are the first words.  The psalms were not yet numbered — it was common practice to refer to them by their opening verse.

This would be an answer to the Jewish scribes and people for why he would not descend from the cross; namely, by applying this psalm to himself, he is showing that it was appointed that he should suffer these things.

Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look, he is calling Elijah.”

The bystanders mishear Jesus’ words, thinking that he was calling on Elijah. (This is why the translation leaves the original Aramaic, because Eloi sounds like Elijah.) Popular belief was that one of Elijah’s tasks would be to rescue the pious from their need (Sirach 48:1-11).

One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”

Most translations say “sour wine” or “vinegar.” Psalm 69:22 is fulfilled: they gave me vinegar to drink for my thirst.

This drink was not the stupefying potion given to criminals before their crucifixion, to lull the sense of pain, but the sour wine, the ordinary drink of the soldiers, called posen. The reed was most probably the long stalk of the hyssop plant, the same stalk which was used to sprinkle the blood on the doorposts and lintel in the first Passover (Exodus 12:22).

Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

The three synoptic gospels all mention this cry, which appears to have been something different from the words which he uttered at or about the time of his death.

Usually the voice fails the dying, more especially when the natural forces have been weakened by long agony, as in the case of Christ. Many commentators see him doing so by supernatural power which God the Father supplied to him; this would demonstrate that although he had gone through all the pains which were sufficient in ordinary cases to produce death, he did not die of necessity, but voluntarily, in accordance with what he had previously said:  No one taketh my life from me… I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. (John 10:18).

The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.

The word for veil is katapetasma, which specifically identifies the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.  According to Josephus, both the katapetasma and the kalumma, or the outer veil of the temple, were each forty cubits in height and ten in breadth, of great substance, very massive, and richly embroidered with gold and purple.

The fact that it was torn from top to bottom indicates that it could not be done by man. Many see this as an indication that heaven is no longer sealed off but is now open, and God can now be approached for forgiveness of sin.

When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

It was the centurion’s job to supervise crucifixions and see that the sentence was executed. He was certainly accustomed to scenes such as this, but he has witnessed something so different from anything that he had ever seen before (the darkness, Jesus’ piercing cry just before death), that it elicited this involuntary exclamation.

There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome.  These women had followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him. There were also many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem. 

John says that the women stood near, and he would have known, because at least for a time, he was also standing nearby.  However, Matthew and Mark speak of them as being at a distance. They were definitely at a distance compared with the soldiers, whose duty it was to be in close attendance and to keep the people off. Perhaps they were sometimes further off and sometimes nearer, as they saw opportunity, or as the officials allowed them.

Mark mentions this to show the faith and love of these holy women, because in the very presence of the enemies of Christ they dared to stand by his cross and did not shrink from their piety and devotion.

In fact, throughout this account, only the women among Jesus’ intimate followers remained faithful.  One anointed him, others kept watch at his crucifixion, and later, they will take note of where he was buried.

Of the men who knew him well, one betrayed him, another denied him, and the rest fled for safety.  It was a foreigner, a centurion, who publicly acclaimed his divinity.

When it was already evening, since it was the day of preparation, the day before the sabbath,

The sabbath commenced on the Friday evening at six o’clock. The evening commenced at three o’clock. According to the sabbath laws, the work of burying Jesus must be completed before six o’clock.

Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished member of the council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, came and courageously went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

St. Jerome says that Arimathea was called Ramathaim-Zophim (“the lofty place”), where Elkanah and Hannah where from, and where Samuel was born. Joseph was most probably a native of Arimathaea; but he was now a citizen and counsellor of Jerusalem.  Matthew says he was a rich man and that he was a disciple of Jesus.

Pilate was amazed that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion and asked him if Jesus had already died.

It must have been somewhat early in the afternoon, probably not long after three o’clock, when Joseph went. The day being the Preparation, the Jews were anxious to satisfy the letter of the Law (Deuteronomy 21:13), and that, more especially, because the coming sabbath was a “high day.”

Pilate is surprised because crucifixion is typically a slow lingering death.

And when he learned of it from the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.

Although stark, a literal translation of the Greek is “corpse,” probably used to remove any question of coma or shock.

Having bought a linen cloth,

This was a fine linen garment, or shroud, something like that in which the young man fled the night before (Mark 14:51, 52).

he took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb.

It appears from these words that Joseph himself, assisted probably by Nicodemus and others (it would have been too great a task to undertake alone), actually took the body of our Lord down from the cross, wrapped the sindon around him, and laid him in his own new tomb, which had been hewn out of the rock.

By touching the corpse, Joseph and the others have rendered themselves unclean for the Passover.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses watched where he was laid.

These women were two of the group previously mentioned. They remained, after the body of our Lord had been deposited, in sad and silent contemplation.

Connections and Themes

A self-emptying savior.  We have not been saved through military power, but through the kenotic humility of Jesus.  Though he was really in the form of God, Jesus came in the form of a slave. We have a Savior who was crushed for our iniquities, nailed to a cross as a convicted felon, and there endured an acute sense of abandonment.  Why has God stooped so low? Why did Christ empty himself so completely?  We could say that all of this happened because Jesus was obedient to God’s will in his life, regardless of where it was to lead him.  This may be true, but why does God love us with such abandon?

A highly exalted savior. We have a savior who was lifted up and exalted precisely because he emptied himself of his divine prerogatives.  He became one of us in order to show us how we are to live.  Unlike conquerors who triumph by putting down their opponents, Jesus was raised up because he himself was first willing to be put down. The passion recounts the extent to which he willingly offered himself.  Because of this he has been exalted above everyone and everything else.  His glorification was won at a great price, but it is now his by victory and not by mere bestowal.  His name commands the homage no other name can claim, and it does so because he first handed himself over for us.

An example for us. We have a savior who first offered himself for us and then continues to offer himself to us as an example to follow.  As he was willing to empty himself for our sake, so we are told to empty ourselves for the sake of others. The best way to enter Holy Week with him is in the company of those with whom he has identified himself: the poor and the broken; the humiliated and the marginalized; those who suffer the abuse of others; those who never use rank to force their will. If we are to be saved we must go where salvation take place: in our streets and in our homes where violence rages; in the dark corners of life where despair seems to hold sway; wherever the innocent are abused or the needy are neglected; wherever there is misunderstanding or fear or jealousy.  We must go wherever Christ empties himself for our salvation.

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