By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7; Response: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; Second Reading: Philippians 2:6-11; Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:47
The first reading is taken from the third of four poems (songs, psalms) inserted into the second part of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55. The unknown prophet whose oracles were attached to the oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem, chapters 1-39, is called Second Isaiah. His oracles are dated between 550-540 B.C. The four poems are known as the Servant Songs. The central character of the poems is usually an individual, though sometimes Israel as a people or nation is clearly the subject of the poems. The third poem describes the sufferings of an individual person. Probably, the suffering Servant is the prophet himself, persecuted by those to whom the Lord sent him — the exiles in Babylon. Although the historical setting is mid-sixth century B.C. in Babylon, Christian interpretation gave them a new meaning as predictive of the life, ministry, sufferings, death and resurrection/ascension of Jesus.
The four poems, like the rest of Isaiah, were well known to St. Paul, to the authors/editors of our four gospels and to other authors of our New Testament. They used concepts, words, phrases of these poems in the Passions to describe the suffering and death of Jesus. Christians who are acquainted with the Passion Narratives, at least to the extent of hearing them read during Holy Week, will understand how parts of our first reading were incorporated in the Passion Narratives. Primarily, they are used to describe the torturing of Jesus before the crucifixion. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. My face I did not shield from buffeting and spitting” (See Mark 15:16-20; Matt 27:27-31). Jesus’ patience under suffering and his trust in his Father flow from his statement in the garden, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” There are echoes of this in our first reading. “The Lord God is my help. Therefore, I am not disgraced. I have set my face like flint, knowing that I will not be put to shame.”
Psalm 22 is traditionally related to the Passion because it begins with the words Matthew and Mark chose as Jesus’ last words on the cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” This is also the people’s response in today’s liturgy. The Psalmist experiences abandonment, mockery, torture, even nakedness. Thus this ancient psalm became a foundation in the composition of our four Passion Narratives. The mockery inflicted on the Psalmist lives on in the mockery of Jesus on the cross (See Mark 15:29-30; Matt 27:39-40; Luke 23:35). The Psalmist’s wounded hands and feet live on in the wounded hands and feet of Jesus. The division of his garments lives on in Mark 15:24; Matt 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24.
The second reading is an excerpt from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It is a hymn known as ‘The Christ Hymn.’ Paul incorporated the hymn into his letter to address a problem in the Christian community at Philippi in Greek Macedonia. Leaders were fighting over who was No. 1 among them. They needed a lesson in humility in serving one another instead of lording it over others.
Paul gives the example of a humble Jesus. Though he was God, he did not cling to this dignity but made himself a servant obedient unto death. What was the reward of his humility? Paul writes, “Because of this, God greatly exalted him, and bestowed upon him a name which is above every other name . . . . And every tongue proclaims that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The example is divine, but the desired motivation Paul wants to teach is very human. What is he saying? See how God rewarded the humility of his Son. Thus, God will also reward you if you humble yourselves to serve each other.
A major theme of Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ rejection and abandonment by all those closest to him, even his divine family. The theme begins with Jesus’ temptation when the Holy Spirit expels him into the desert against his human will. It ends with his cry of abandonment on the cross. There he no longer addresses his Father with the familiar ‘Abba,’ but with the title ‘Eli,’ (my God), as if estranged from his Father. Mark composed his gospel in the late sixties or in 70 A.D. for the Christians of Rome. They had recently undergone horrendous persecution by command of the emperor Nero. Sts. Peter and Paul died in that persecution. Those who remained felt totally abandoned. Mark presents an abandoned Jesus to whom they can relate. Though the theme of abandonment runs throughout the gospel, it is most prevalent in the Passion Narrative. In the second verse of the Passion, Jesus is rejected by the religious leaders in Jerusalem as they plot to kill him. Next is Judas’ betrayal. He offers to the chief priests to betray Jesus into their power and begins to look for an opportunity. In the garden, Jesus is abandoned by his three closest disciples. Instead of supporting him, they slept while he agonizingly pleaded with his Father to be spared from the disaster looming over him.
A symbolic story follows. When Jesus is arrested, a young disciple wearing only a linen cloth is also arrested. He wiggles out of his wrap and runs away naked. He is a symbol of the abandoning disciples. At the beginning of the gospel they leave all to follow Jesus. When the crunch comes they leave even their clothes behind to quickly get away from him. Then comes Peter’s betrayal of Jesus through a triple denial under oath that he did not know him. Jesus is handed over by his own religious leadership to Pilate, the Roman prefect. Soldiers mock, strip and torture him. His clothes are returned only to be taken away from him at the crucifixion. Strangers passing by, along with priests and scribes, taunt him while he is dying. The earth itself seems to abandon him, turning dark at midday for three hours. Finally, that shocking cry, his last words, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Rejected by his own, Jesus makes a convert at that moment, a Roman soldier, a Gentile, an outsider. He professes his faith, “Indeed this man was the Son of God!” Mark ends with the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection. There is hope.