Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion · Mark 15:1-47 · April 5, 2009
By Travis J. Scholl
As seems the case every time we encounter a pericope from the Gospel of Mark, we can start by noticing what is not there. The “Palm Sunday” in Mark isn’t triumphal, at least not with the same sense of triumph that we find in the other gospels. But Mark does give us another Passion initiation rite of sorts. It begins the longer reading that is an option for this Sunday (14:1-15:47). Jesus is in Bethany, at the border-town threshold of his death march into Jerusalem, and “a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head” (14:3). The significance of the act is lost on everyone else. But not on Jesus: “…she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (14:8). Mark’s equivalent to a triumphal Palm Sunday parade is a kingly anointing for death, made by a woman whose name is unrecorded but whose act will be remembered forever (14:9).
This is perfectly in keeping with Mark’s foreboding sense of tragedy. Now the tone is set for the Passion of the Son of God. (It is significant to reflect on Mark’s Passion this day, since the readings for the Three Days will be another disruption from the Gospel of John.)
The coronation of this king is completed in the pericope proper by the satire of soldiers: “And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!”‘ (15:17-18). Of course, “King of the Jews” is the title given Jesus by Pilate, a name imposed upon him by an antagonistic and incredulous empire. This is part of Mark’s irony. Jesus fulfills this title, despite the fact that it is a title he never claims for himself. But he fulfills it in a way that subverts every attempt by the “principalities and powers” of this world to put words in his mouth. (Quite literally for Mark, both trials subsist in charges about things Jesus supposedly said) The irony is signaled by Jesus’ deafening silence, a silence so profound it leaves Pilate “amazed” (15:4). Of course, Pilate leaves himself in more of a bind than when he started when he is outsmarted into releasing a murderous rebel in the stead of an innocent man.
It really is no different in our time. Words are put in Jesus’ mouth all the time. And all our attempts to get at the heart of what Jesus really is all about leave us in more of a bind than when we started. “But who do you say that I am?” (8:29). If we are listening at all to Mark’s Gospel, we can only now answer Mark’s central question with any sort of accuracy. We answer with the amazement of the centurion: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). Everything else is either silence or noise.
Of course, in Mark’s Passion, Jesus’ silence seems to consume all. The only words Mark records from the cross are Jesus’ most haunting. Mark is so haunted to record them that at first he can only recite them in a language we can’t understand: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Then, the translation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). The haunted evangelist remembers a haunted Messiah remembering a haunted psalmist (Ps 22). Everything else, from Jesus’ perspective, is silence.
The Palm Sunday liturgy can signal this deep moment of silence. There is always that brief moment in the Palm Sunday liturgy when the cheer of the grand procession turns, the moment when we realize that this king enters his city to be rejected and scorned, to suffer and to die. It is the moment of recognition at who this Jesus really is, and what it means for him to be the Christ, the Son of God. How you, as liturgist and preacher, enact this silence is your decision. But it should be attended to with forethought and care.
Silence and noise. If we listen to what we read in Mark’s Passion, we hear a reverberating between silence and noise. Mark 15 is a veritable soundtrack to the Passion of the Christ, and the sounds seem to constantly move back and forth between hushed tones and loud cacophony, between Jesus whispering “You have said so” and a crowd shouting “Crucify him!” This horrifying dialogue refuses to be resolved until the phonen megalen—the “loud cry” of the Son of God breathing his last (15:37). Literally, this is the mega-phone that signals that the tragedy of the Passion is now complete. There is much drama here and in all the details of Mark’s Passion, drama that can be enacted liturgically in word, sound, song, and gesture. Indeed, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Now, though, the stage has emptied but for a small circle that has gathered to watch and listen. Simon of Cyrene and Joseph of Arimathea. The centurion. All the women who “provided for him when he was in Galilee” (15:41). We are among them, watching and listening “from a distance” (15:40). But in a final irony that is not lost on Mark, the Christ will soon return to Galilee, where he will provide for us. Even this day he will provide, in a morsel of bread and a sip of wine.