It is often questioned why Palm Sunday is also the Sunday of the Passion. What starts off as what is sometimes called the âTriumphal Entryâ to Jerusalem at the beginning of the Liturgy seems to race all the way forward to Good Friday by the end of the liturgy of the Word.
The stock answer, of course, is that itâs because so few people make it their business to go to church on Good Friday to hear Saint Johnâs Passion. This way at least a Passion narrative is read and heard by those who only come on Sundays.
It has also been observed that Mark, which is our gospel for Year B, can be viewed primarily as a Passion narrative with an extended introduction. That is, to understand Mark at all, one must look at the cross. The whole narrative in Mark moves us toward the cross. As one reads the full version of the Passion, we immediately sense how the Passion events seem to play themselves out in horrifying slow motion.
As much as we would like to have Jesus not go to Gethsemane, as much as we might wish to stop Judas, as much as we would like to get after Peter for his three denials of Jesus, in Mark, the cross is not to be avoided. As we will see and hear on Easter, even the young man sitting in the empty tomb will say, âYou are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who has been crucified. He was raised.â For Mark, Jesus is the Crucified One more than the Risen One.
Also, on this question of why the Passion seemingly intrudes upon Palm Sunday â âIt never did when we were younger!â the people cry â it is the Passion that places the entry into Jerusalem in some sort of understandable context.
We may as well face it, Jesus and his rag-tag parade of the poor, the halt and the lame, sinners and outcasts, and he himself riding into town not on regal horseback but on a pathetic little donkey, does not a particularly triumphal entry make. It is at best, in the midst of Passover, Jerusalemâs busiest week of the year, it was an annoying little demonstration that symbolically challenged the occupation of Rome and the authority of the religious professionals, the Pharisees, the priests, and the Herodians.
We are to remember that all the way back in Chapter 3 of Mark, we read, âthe Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.â The Herodians were those Jews who were already conspiring with the ruling party of the successive Herods, who in turn were in a political alliance with Rome. They were considered by the people to be collaborators with the occupying enemy, Rome.
That is, we must recognize that the little demonstration we call Palm Sunday was, in at least one dimension, a political demonstration. Taken together with the next event in Mark, which is the episode at the Temple with the animals and money changers, it is easy to see how once word got to Pilate, whose primary responsibility was to maintain public order, something would have to be done to calm things down so that the Passover celebration could come off without any further disruption.
Also, given the fact that people in the streets wanted nothing more than to get rid of the yoke of Rome, Barabbas â which curiously translates as âson of the fatherâ â a known insurrectionist, becomes a more attractive captive to liberate since he at least was willing to take to the streets and kill as many Romans and collaborators as necessary to inspire some sort of wider scale insurrection or civil war.
The key to this whole story very well may be that Jesus refuses to fight the pain that has been inflicted on him by inflicting pain. He refuses to overcome injustice with an easy, optimistic plan for progress. He refuses to fight back against the shame poured out upon him by a mighty, flashy display of Romeâs imperial power: crucifixion.
As we pray at Station Five of the stations of the cross:
âHeavenly Father, whose blessed Son Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in his Name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.â
Service. We speak of a service economy, and businesses looking eager to âserveâ the public. But such service comes of self-interest. It is not service in terms of laying down oneâs life for the customersâ sake, but rather it is service intended to impress â like Pilate, whom we are told wished âto please the crowd.â Jesus does not serve to impress or please, to win the favor and sympathy of those whom he helps, let alone those whom he confronts. Jesus is the chosen one of God who has displayed his power over demons and disease, who chose to serve and refused to avoid suffering and even death on a cross.
Because all those things that we decry as the power of sin in our world and in our lives, even death itself, will not be overcome by force. They will only be overcome by the service and ransom of the very one, the only one, who needs neither to serve nor to pay off any debt.
Could this have been done any other way? Perhaps it could have, if we could live lives without suffering and sin and death; which, of course, is another way of saying, âNo.â
What we see in Markâs version of this narrative is a Jesus who does not so much defeat death but rather refuses to avoid it. His forsaken cry from the cross should not be tempered into anything but a true cry of desperation that echoes the truth of the pains we experience in our lives â individually, as well as collectively as the church, as a community, and as a nation.
Make no mistake about it, this entire narrative takes place within the context of an international military and political occupation and conflict. Jesus rises above the petty political, religious, and military background noise. He literally is raised above it all on the cross. He defeats sin through bearing sin. He defeats death by dying on a cross.
In Christ crucified we begin to experience authentic life. Such life is not easy in a world still mad with power and prestige, a world that wants to sell a path of service to others as a commodity to be purchased rather than as a life lived like Jesus lived his. Itâs a good thing the good news can only be given away!