Homiletical Reflections for March 28, 2021

Palm and Passion Sunday, March 28, 2021
Mark 15:1-39

I am usually inclined on the Sunday of the Passion to let the Passion narrative, this year from Mark’s Gospel, speak for itself.

Thus, what follows is less a formal sermon and more homiletical or spiritual reflections on the Passion.

First, though, a question: Did God will that Jesus should be crucified? Certain theories of the Atonement, of our being made right with God, require such a sacrifice. A righteous God necessarily must demand a sacrifice to atone for human sin. Thus, if we cannot offer the necessary sacrifice, then Jesus could. Jesus’ death on the cross was thus mandated in this theological schema. That’s one view of the Atonement.

What I find compelling is that the Roman Catholic Church has not established an official dogma of the Atonement. That is to say, there are varieties of theological theories of the Atonement out there, none of which, from a Catholic Magisterial perspective, is definitive.

Thus, there is room for a variety of theological perspectives on making sense of Jesus’ death. I happen to think that the crucifixion was the inevitable outcome of the nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission. Jesus was not afraid to speak the truth about God and how this truth would upend human business as usual. Thus, it was inevitable that what Jesus taught and what he did would get him into trouble with the various powers of the world who had the authority to put him to death.

But please note this in the passage from Mark and other versions of the Gospels: the crowds shout, “Crucify him!”

Many blame the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion, and such blaming has contributed to much Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism throughout the centuries.

Others will emphasize that the crucifixion was undertaken only by the authority and power of Roman imperial officials and armies.

But the Roman authorities bowed to the will of the crowds, the mob, who shouted, “Crucify him!”

Where does that leave us? Well, we’re in the crowds. And we are the ones, if we were present, may well have joined the herd mentality and yelled, “Crucify him!”

In my occasions of participating in dramatic readings of the Passion, I often note the passion with which I share in the whole assembly’s shout of “Crucify him!” It’s not pretty, but it taps into something unseemly in the recesses of my psyche. I am not alone in this.

So, Jesus is crucified. Nine o’clock in the morning, according to Mark. Those present mocked Jesus in various ways. The religious leaders had this to say: “He saved others; he cannot even save himself.”

Here’s the thing: this statement is intended as a taunt, an expression of mockery. But it’s also a kind of proclamation of the gospel, the good news, very much unintended by those mocking Jesus. Yes, Jesus did and does save others. And the good news is that Jesus did not attempt to save himself, but others. Therefore Jesus had no reason to save himself given the nature of his mission!

This is what the apostle Paul, quoting a great Christ hymn, has to say about all of this in today’s second reading from Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

So, the mocking derision of the religious leaders hanging out at the cross becomes, from the vantage point of the Christian gospel, good news. Yes, Jesus saved and saves others precisely because he did not choose to save himself. That’s what it’s all about in the Christian logic of things. Jesus might have chosen to save himself, but Jesus chose otherwise.

Instead, he emptied himself, poured himself out in selfless love for the world which had the effect of radically countering the world’s hatred and violence.

And here we are. The day proceeded, from mid-morn to mid-day when darkness came over the whole land until mid-afternoon – confounding the natural rhythms of the daylight. Darkness doesn’t normally happen at midday.

Jesus expresses his sense of forsakenness by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Then there’s this culminating moment as recorded by Mark: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

This is not the first time that things are torn asunder in Mark’s gospel. It happened at Jesus baptism: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” (Mark 1:10)

This tearing apart allowed for heaven and earth to mix, with focus on Jesus and the presence of God’s Spirit.

There was also a mixing of heaven and earth in Mark’s recounting of the transfiguration with Jesus appearing in dazzling white in discourse with Moses and Elijah and the cloud overshadowing all those gathered (cf. Mark 9:2-8).

Yet again, there was a blending of things heavenly and earthly in Mark’s recounting of the empty tomb at the resurrection when the stone had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, and the young man dressed in a white robe announced that Jesus had been raised, the response to which was terror and amazement and silence because the witnesses were too afraid to say anything (cf. Mark 16:1-8).

Such rending of the boundaries between heaven and earth leads to an unlikely confession of faith, in this case, from the Roman Centurion, an official representing the empire that had the authority to put Jesus to death: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:39)

So, here we have another unlikely confession of faith, this time from a Roman soldier, a representative of the state power and violence that put Jesus to death in response to the wild energy of the mob of the crowd.

The confounding logic of this story has the effect of tearing our sense of things asunder, of ripping our logic in two, top to bottom. But such rending is for our healing and that of the nations, that we may be made whole again. Thus, the mystery of our faith. Amen.

For your reflection at home:

  • Simply take some time to dwell in silence, letting the themes of the Passion according to Mark take deeper hold of you.