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Introduction To The Scripture For The Sixth Sunday in Lent - Year B
Liturgy of the Palms
Psalm 118:1-2,19-29; Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16
Liturgy of the Passion
Isaiah 50:49a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1 - 15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 (40-7)

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Sixth Sunday in Lent - Year B
Palm - Passion Sunday

Liturgy of the Palms
       Mark 11:1-11 or 
       John 12:12-16 
       Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Liturgy of the Passion
        Isaiah 50:4-9a 
        Psalm 31:9-16 
        Philippians 2:5-11 
        Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39, (40-47)

    [Note: Choices must be made in selecting the appropriate 
    readings, depending on whether to use the Liturgy of the Palms 
    or the Liturgy of the Passion.  Many congregations will hold 
    Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services when the Liturgy of the 
    Passion is most suitable.  In the following analysis we shall 
    try to point to the links between the Old Testament passages and 
    both Gospel readings.  A more complete analysis of the readings 
    follows this brief summary for church bulletins.]


LITURGY OF THE PALMS

PSALM 118:1-2,19-29                    Undoubtedly this psalm was chosen 
to accompany the Liturgy of the Palms because it is a hymn of celebration 
and thanksgiving.  It may have been used originally at the harvest 
festival of Sukkoth.  In Jewish practice it is the last of the six Hallels 
(Pss. 113-118) that have found a significant place in the worship services 
of Judaism.  


MARK 11:1-11                           Jesus' entry into Jerusalem began 
the final ascent to the cross. Entering the city in a victory parade, a 
conquering king would ride a stallion; but this one comes on a borrowed 
donkey, a symbol of peace.  This indicates his humility as well as his 
true messiahship.  The ending is anticlimactic.  The business between 
Jesus and the welcoming throng was unfinished.  It was indeed.  Holy Week 
takes us to his condemnation and crucifixion on Good Friday.


JOHN 12:12-16                          John's version of Jesus' triumphal 
entry covers much the same ground including the details that it was the 
crowds who greeted him.  Only Luke tells us that disciples made up the 
multitude that rejoiced. (Luke 19:17)  John continues his portrayal of the 
disciples not knowing what the celebration was all about until after the 
resurrection.  Thus he links the entry with the Passion and resurrection 
narratives as the glorifying of Jesus, the Word of God become flesh.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

PSALM 118:1-2,19-29                    Undoubtedly this psalm was chosen 
to accompany the Liturgy of the Palms because it is a hymn of celebration 
and thanksgiving.  It may have been used originally at the harvest 
festival of Sukkoth.  In Jewish practice it is the last of the six Hallels 
(Pss. 113-118) that have found a significant place in the worship services 
of Judaism.  

Christians too have no difficulty seeing it as reflecting the great drama 
of the Passion beginning with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Indeed 
Mark quotes from vs. 26 in telling how the crowds received Jesus.  Vs. 22 
also became a favorite theme of the New Testament writers, occurring no 
less than six times.  Vs. 23 may refer to the rebuilding of the temple by 
Nehemiah (6:16) that even Israel's enemies deemed that Yahweh had 
accomplished.  

As pilgrims approached Jerusalem from the east, they descended the Mount 
of Olives to the Kidron Valley, then mounted a long stairway to the 
eastern gates of the Temple Mount.  Because it was so sacred, the temple 
was protected on all sides by walls with strong gates that could be opened 
to admit worshipers as necessary.  But only those who purified themselves 
by a ritual bath could enter the temple itself.  Hence the references in 
vss. 19-20.  The popular Christian anthem, "Open the Gates of the Temple" 
is based on these verses.  


MARK 11:1-11                          One cannot help but wonder if Mark 
included this pericope with a touch of irony.  Jesus' triumphal entry into 
Jerusalem began the final ascent to the cross. Hailed as the Messiah, he 
would soon be the victim of the fickle crowds' hateful cries, "Crucify 
him!" 

Entering the city in a victory parade, a conquering king would ride a 
stallion; but this one comes on a borrowed donkey, a symbol of peace.  
Jesus appears to have deliberately set this up to indicate his humility 
and so exhibit the true nature of his messiahship.  It would also seem 
that in this instance and in the arrangements for the Passover feast 
(14:12-16), Jesus had already negotiated with unnamed persons.  Or so Mark 
would have us believe.  

The famous silver chalice of Antioch, now in the Metropolitan Museum in 
New York, has a highly decorative exterior lattice work in the form of a 
vine in which figures of the Gospel authors are seated and a simple cup 
enclosed.  The chalice was found in the ruins of the great cathedral in 
Antioch.  Tradition holds that the cup is the one used at the Last Supper.  
Thomas Costain's novel *The Silver Chalice* told the fictitious story of 
how the chalice came into existence.  The figure representing Mark is that 
of a water carrier which may have been Mark's employment. ( Cf. 14:13) 
Legend has it that the Upper Room belonged to Mark's mother.  Was the 
donkey's colt also his?  A donkey would be a suitable beast of burden for 
a water carrier.  And were incidents of the young man who ran away naked 
from the Garden of Gethsemane (14:51) and also met the women at the empty 
tomb (16:5) also Mark's personal signature that he had been there too?

The ending of the entry into Jerusalem is anticlimactic.  Jesus just went 
into the temple and looked around (11:11), then left for an overnight stay 
in Bethany, a hamlet on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives.  That 
was where the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary was located.  The business 
between Jesus and the welcoming throng was unfinished.  It is obvious, 
nonetheless, that Mark wrote of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem with the 
Jewish messianic tradition in mind.  That tradition had been radically 
transformed by the apostolic interpretation of it and was rooted in the 
apostles' understanding of the words and deeds of Jesus himself.  There 
was still much to tell, as Mark goes on to record.  His Passion story 
takes us through the betrayal, condemnation and crucifixion with the 
pathos of a great storyteller.


JOHN 12:12-16                          John's version of Jesus' triumphal 
entry covers much the same ground including the details that it was the 
crowds who greeted him.  Only Luke tells us that disciples made up the 
multitude that rejoiced.  (Luke 19:17) John continues his portrayal of the 
disciples not knowing what the celebration was all about until after the 
resurrection.  Thus he links the entry with the Passion and resurrection 
narratives as the glorifying of Jesus, the Word of God become flesh.  

The quotations in this passage also give us the clue that the entry 
narratives reflect or may have been a post-resurrection midrash on Psalm 
118:26 and the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 possibly introduced by brief 
references to Zephaniah 3:16 and Isaiah 44:2.  There is one small 
divergence from Mark's narrative in that it is Jesus himself who found the 
donkey to ride on.  Once one has walked down the Mount of Olives to the 
Kidron Valley and sat on the steps leading to the Golden Gate into the 
temple precincts, one has to wonder why a donkey was needed at all except 
to fulfill the scriptures.  John seems to indicate this in vs. 16.  
Whatever its origin, the tradition remains and is still to be celebrated 
in the Liturgy of the Palms.


LITURGY OF THE PASSION

ISAIAH 50:4-9                          This is part of the third of four 
Servant Songs in Isaiah written during Israel's exile in Babylon.  It 
clarifies the vocation of God's servant, but we are never sure whether 
that servant is all of Israel, God's people, or a single individual.  God 
has given the servant the ability to hear and speak a word to sustain the 
weary.  The servant has been faithful and obedient even though that meant 
suffering persecution.  Yet the servant is confident and trusts God for 
vindication and deliverance.  Jesus appears to have identified closely 
with this passage, especially the rejection and suffering of the servant.


PSALM 31:9-16                          This psalm contains three laments, 
each referring to different groups of people.  Verses 1-8 plead for 
protection against impending trouble; vss. 9-12 are the petition of one 
afflicted with disease; and vss. 13-16 voice the cry of one who is 
persecuted.


PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11                     This early Christian hymn, perhaps 
composed by Paul himself, incorporates the earliest Christian creed: 
"Jesus is Lord." Christ is seen as the key figure in a divine drama in 
which he yields up his existence with God and assumes human form.  As an 
obedient servant he suffers the utmost shame of crucifixion in total 
contrast to the glory and honour of divinity before resuming his status as 
Lord of all.  


MARK 14:1-15:47                        Mark's Passion Story consists of 
series of brief vignettes, something like quick changing scenes in a 
television drama.  They give us a very clear picture of what may have 
happened during Jesus' last days.  Using the whole passage for preaching 
purposes may be difficult.  However, the way the story is structured gives 
ample opportunity of dealing with each vignette as a separate entity.  


A  MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

ISAIAH 50:4-9   This is part of the third of four Servant Songs in Isaiah 
written during Israel's exile in Babylon.  Just how much of this chapter 
should be included in the Servant Song is a moot question.  While it helps 
to clarify the vocation of God's servant, we are never sure whether that 
servant is all of Israel, God's people, or a single individual.  We can be 
certain, however, that the servant was not originally intended to be 
associated with the messianic king of David's royal line who would deliver 
Israel from oppression.  As H.H. Rowley pointed out conclusively in his 
masterful discussion of the issue in *The Servant of the Lord* (1952), 
there is no evidence that these two concepts were related before the 
beginning of the Christian era.

Note that the word "servant" does not appear in this passage, yet scholars 
have consistently treated it was one of the Servant Songs.  Furthermore, 
the servant in this song is almost certainly recognizable as an 
individual.  God has given the servant the role of a teacher with ability 
to hear and speak a word to sustain weary disciples (vs. 4).  The servant 
has been faithful and obedient even though that meant suffering 
persecution (vs. 5).  Yet the servant is confident and trusts God for 
vindication and deliverance (vss.7-9) 
 
Jesus appears to have identified closely with this passage, especially the 
rejection and suffering of the servant.  James Muilenberg wrote in the 
introduction to Isaiah 40-66 in *The Interpreter's Bible* (V, 413): "It is 
on the foundation of Second Isaiah's eschatological poems that the authors 
of the Gospels write their accounts of Jesus of Nazareth."  The Passion 
story can be seen as a midrash on the Servant Songs, especially the fourth 
of these, Isa. 52:12-53:12.

The Gospel writers knew, as we also know, how the Passion story ended.  
The crucifixion and death of Jesus were not the whole story.  Their only 
scriptures were those of their Hebrew tradition, including the Book of 
Isaiah.  The resurrection and living presence of Christ could only be 
understood in the light of that theological tradition.  Mark also believed 
the apostolic teaching that in Jesus Christ God had acted in a dramatic 
new way to extend salvation to all who heard and responded to their 
proclamation of the Good News.  Thus they would see in the Servant Songs 
the essential ministry of vicarious and redemptive suffering that Jesus 
had fulfilled by his life, death and resurrection.  That being so, one can 
see this third song as the basis for the strengthening of Jesus' 
determination to face his betrayal, trial and crucifixion as told by Mark 
in his version of the Passion, especially 14:26-42.


PSALM 31:9-16   This psalm contains three laments, each referring to 
different groups of people.  Vss. 1-8 plead for protection against 
impending trouble; vss. 9-12 are the petition of one afflicted with 
disease; and vss. 13-16 voice the cry of one who is persecuted.  Although 
these laments have no direct connection with the reading from Second 
Isaiah or with the Passion story, they do create a mood of sorrow and 
grief which both engender.  

We tend to regard crucifixion from a very different perspective than those 
who actually witnessed it.  The Romans had adopted this means of capital 
punishment from the Phoenicians and the Persians.  It was a particularly 
cruel form of execution involving great suffering and public humiliation.  
The Romans reserved it for the execution of slaves and foreigners, 
especially those who had committed robbery or sedition.  It was intended 
to deter those who saw it from further crime.  More than likely, the scorn 
heaped upon the executed villains as they suffered a torturous death was 
the means many used to counter the horror.  Did Mark have this in mind as 
he wrote of Jesus' crucifixion (Ps. 31:11 cf. Mark 15:29-32)?  No wonder 
the disciples had fled the scene leaving the women to mourn (Mark 15:40-
41).


PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11   This early Christian hymn may well have been composed 
by Paul himself.  Yet nowhere else in all his letters does he rise to such 
eloquence of speech or give such a clear definition of how the apostolic 
church understood the Jesus story.

 As a rabbinical student in Jerusalem before his conversion Paul would 
have heard of three significant elements of this song: Its lyrical form 
was similar to the great Levitical hymns of the temple.  The apostolic 
story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was a personal concern 
of his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel.  The humble poverty of the Christian 
community was well known too, made up as it was predominately of Galileans 
and the lower classes with few men and women of prominence among them.

In carefully constructed Greek words and phrases, Christ is seen as the 
key figure in a divine drama in which he yields up his co-existence with 
God, assumes human form and suffers the humiliation of death by 
crucifixion.  Those who have difficulty understanding whether or not Jesus 
was divine have only to consider Paul's statement about his true nature.  
The word *huparchein* (translated as "being") described the very inner 
nature or essence of a person.  As William Barclay said: "It describes the 
innate, unchangeable, unalterable characteristics and abilities of a man 
which, in spite of all the chances and the changes, and in any 
circumstances, remains the same." (*The Letter to the Corinthians: Daily 
Bible Readings*, 1957, 43.)  Coupled with that was the Greek word for 
"form."  In this case, *morph‚* was used rather than *schema*.   *Morph* 
referred to the essential form as opposed to the outward form that 
continually changed.  So Jesus' unchangeable nature was divine.

At the same time, Paul said, Jesus did not think that his divinity "was 
something to be exploited" as the NSRV puts it.  Again the Greek word is 
beautifully descriptive.  *Harpagmos* comes from the verb which means "to 
snatch" or "to clutch."  Either English word would fit the situation.  As 
Barclay points out, either he had no need to snatch at equality with God; 
or he did not need to clutch it, "as if to hug it jealously to himself.  
And to refuse to let it go."  On the contrary, Paul says in amazement, 
Jesus gave it all up, humiliating himself as a slave obedient to the point 
of suffering the utmost shame of crucifixion in total contrast to the 
glory and honour of divinity.  Barclay again: "There is no passage in the 
whole New Testament which so movingly sets out the utter reality of the 
godhead and the manhood of Jesus Christ, and which makes so vivid the 
inconceivable sacrifice that Christ made when he laid aside his godhead 
and took manhood upon him.  How it happened we can not tell.  The end is 
mystery, but it is the mystery of a love so great that we can never fully 
understand it, although we can blessedly experience it and adore it."

The hymn does not end there however.  It goes on to sing of the exaltation 
of Jesus to the place of glorious sovereignty with God where heavenly and 
earthly worship is offered to him as to God.

The confession 'Jesus is Lord" is at once the earliest Christian creed and 
an acknowledgment of Jesus' divinity.  Paul used that designation only 
three times in his letters and each time with worshipful sincerity and 
awe.  The other two are found in Romans 10:9 and 1 Corinthians 12:3.  This 
was said to be the essential confession each convert repeated at baptism.  
All the Philippians had made this same confession.  All later creeds of 
the Christian church derived from it.  There was - and is - nothing more 
that needs to be said as a statement of faith.  For all time, this 
confession commits the one who says it sincerely to a life in which Jesus 
reigns supreme and so fulfills the will and purpose of God.


MARK 14:1 - 15:47   Mark's Passion Story consists of series of brief 
vignettes, something like quick changing scenes in a television drama.  
But they give us a very clear picture of what may have happened during 
Jesus' last days.  Using the whole passage for preaching purposes may be 
difficult.  However, the way the story is structured gives ample 
opportunity of dealing with each vignette as a separate entity.  

Vss. 1-10 tell of the anointing of Jesus by an unnamed woman, mistakenly 
identified as Mary Magdalene, because of an erroneous attribution of Luke 
7:36-50.  John 12:1-8 specifically identifies Mary of Bethany as the 
woman.  Note that both pericopes locate the incident in Bethany but at 
different times and circumstances.

According to vs. 12, preparations for the feast of Passover took place on 
the first day of Unleavened Bread, the same day when the Passover lamb was 
slaughtered and sacrificed (i.e. 15 Nisan).  Matthew and Luke follow this 
chronology, but John states that the last supper and the crucifixion both 
occurred on "the day of Preparation," the eve of the Passover (John 18:28; 
19:14).  The discrepancy is unsolvable, but so are many of the distinctive 
chronologies of John's Gospel.

Three separate pericopes present Mark's version of the preparations for 
and the institution of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.  The first 
(vss. 12-16) reveals Jesus' intention of celebrating the Passover with his 
disciples and that he had made prior plans to do so.  In the second (vss. 
17-21) Jesus distresses the fellowship by telling them of his imminent 
betrayal, but he does not identify which one of them will actually do it.  
The third periscope presents very briefly the act of sharing of bread and 
cup that were to become the basic elements of the sacrament.  Ancient 
texts vary as to whether the words of institution included reference to 
the "new" covenant (14:24) as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 11:25.

Vss. 26-31 have greater import than a transition from the Upper Room to 
the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mark attributes Jesus as prophesying that the 
disciples would all desert him, quoting from Zechariah 13:7.  He added a 
word that after his resurrection he would go before them to Galilee, 
inferring that he would meet them there.  Peter naturally objected to the 
initial and worst part of the prophecy.  He swore that he would never 
desert Jesus and received the rebuke that he would go so far as to deny 
Jesus.  Peter objected vehemently, as did the others, thus heightening the 
dramatic tension of Mark's narrative.

The scene in Gethsemane (14:32-42) provides a further intensification of 
the suffering Jesus endured.  So much so that one scholar offered the 
suggestion to a class of seminarians that the suffering of Gethsemane, 
being essential moral and spiritual, was greater than the pain of the 
crucifixion.  This comment enraged some of his more materialistic students 
while others nodded their heads in silent agreement.  

Standing in the traditional site of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of 
Olives, one can wonder why in the darkness of night Jesus could not have 
easily escape through the trees and up the slope of the mountain to the 
safety of his friends' home in Bethany or into the wilderness of Judea 
close by.  In other words, it was not only the disciples who were tempted 
but failed to follow Jesus' instructions to stay awake (vs. 34, 36, 40).  
Indeed, Jesus made an issue of their drowsing and in doing so acknowledged 
his own spiritual struggle to stay alive while knowing full well that 
death was imminent.  He himself intensely desired to escape the inevitable 
doom that awaited him should he be captured.  In simple but powerful words 
Mark described his final acceptance of the suffering God's purpose imposed 
on him.  With a sharp word, "Enough!" to waken the disciples, he announced 
he arrival of his betrayer.

At last Mark identifies the betrayer, Judas, one of the twelve.  (14:34) 
He did not come alone, but with a well-armed crowd and a pre-arranged plan 
of betrayal.  It seems strange that after all that gone on in the previous 
few days that many of the crowd, especially among those who were in league 
with the chief priests, scribes and elders, would not have recognized 
Jesus.  The kiss of the betrayer and the enthusiastic greeting seem more 
of a touch for dramatic emphasis by the storyteller.  The irony of Jesus' 
retort to Judas' greeting is palpable as is the flight of the other 
disciples.

Vs. 51 deserves a special note.  Is this Mark's own signature? When linked 
with mention of the water-carrier (14:13-14) and the young man in white at 
the empty tomb (16:5), it is an enticing to imagine that this is evidence 
Mark's own personal story.  He was there at all three moments.  Writing 
thirty or forty years later, the events and scenes were still vivid in his 
memory.

Jesus' trial before the High Priest has been described as "the Jewish 
trial" in contrast to "the Roman trial" before Pilate in ch.  15.  While 
Mark does tend to shift blame for the crucifixion to the Jewish religious 
leaders, this trial (14:53-65) was more likely a private hearing before 
high priest (Caiaphas) and his entourage than a formal trial before the 
whole Sandhedrin.  They were the ones who wished to get rid of this 
imposter, as they regarded Jesus.  On the other hand, Mark does insist 
"the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony 
against Jesus." (vs. 55)  It seems unreasonable, however, that he 
Sanhedrin would have beenn summoned to a formal session at night during 
the Passover festival.  False testimonies which did not agree (vss. 58-59) 
and Jesus' own silence were insufficient to convict the prisoner until he 
was challenged directly to declare whether or not he was the Messiah (vs. 
61).

The high priest's challenge and Jesus' answer form what is more likely to 
have been a statement of Mark's Christology than an actual account of the 
proceedings.  The specific titles used by the high priest, "the Messiah" 
and "Son of the Blessed" were Jewish honorifics, but technically speaking 
not blasphemy in the Old Testament sense of that crime.  Rather, they 
represent a Hellenistic style of identifying Jesus with God as in John 
10:33.  Nonetheless, Mark describes the conviction meted out as blasphemy.  
This condemnation deserved death in the eyes of all present.  Their 
reactions only served to emphasize their hatred.  But was it more fear 
than rage?

Peter's denial has been a favourite preaching text for many centuries.  
Some might presume that it is a Petrine reminiscence, but others regard it 
as more stylized than a personal account.  Peter's linguistic difficulty 
on the first challenge by the high priest's servant girl (vs. 66-68) could 
have been real because Galilean and Judean dialects and accents of Aramaic 
were different.  The girl's second challenge in the presence of bystanders 
in the outer courtyard had greater impact (vs. 71).  The final blow came 
when the bystanders again charged that Peter was a follower of Jesus, 
hence Peter's curse.  The sound of the second crowing of the cock brought 
Peter to his senses as he recalled what Jesus had said he would do just a 
short time earlier.  

Ch. 15 begins with a puzzling statement, almost as if the whole Sanhedrin 
had not already met (14:55).  This confirms the presumption that the first 
condemnation (14:64) had been made by a limited group whom the chief 
priest had hurriedly assembled.  The use of the word "consultation" may 
imply that not all were agreed with the earlier judgment, but were 
powerless to change the decision.  

Mark's narration becomes very sparse at this point.  Preachers tend to 
elaborate it with details drawn from Passion narratives in the other 
gospels.  Mark's one special revelation is Pilate's realization that 
jealousy motivated the chief priests (15:10).

Pilate appears as the extreme appeaser.  He had a reputation for brutality 
and one Jew executed was as good as another.  Hence the summary trial and 
his effort to keep the aroused mob at bay.  It matter little to him that 
Jesus' own religious leaders were so adamant that he hand down the death 
penalty.  

The Roman Catholic traditions claims that the Stations of the Cross date 
from earliest times and were firmly established as a goal for pilgrims to 
Jerusalem in the 4th century reign of Constantine.  Not until the 16th 
century did the name Via Dolorosa come into common use.  Possibly it was 
Constantine's mother, St. Helena, who first laid out some kind of 
progression for pilgrimages to the supposed sites of various Passion 
events, now numbering fourteen and ending at the Church of the Holy 
Sepulchre.  Mark includes very few of those still cited as devotional 
stations in Roman Catholic churches, chapel and monasteries.  

Mark makes the mockery of Jesus by the Roman cohort almost as compelling 
as the act of crucifixion itself (vss. 16-20)  Could he have been thinking 
of Isaiah 53:3?  The incident had but one intent: to humiliate the man 
understood to be King of the Jews.  One wonders if the text from Deutero-
Isaiah mandated more than the public scourging Pilate had already ordered.

And why does Mark name Simon of Cyrene, the passerby picked from the crowd 
to carry the cross? One can only presume that he was known Mark's audience 
and so further identified as "the father of Alexander and Rufus."  They 
likely were members of the congregation for whom the Passion narrative was 
first composed.  (Cf. Romans 16:13) Scholars from the school of source 
criticism firmly believe that the Passion narratives existed and 
circulated separately, in both oral and written form, before the full 
gospels appeared.

The scene at Golgotha has been vividly displayed many, many times in art 
and in movies, most recently in Mel Gibson's *The Passion of Christ.* 
During the 1880s, General Gordon discovered a rocky hillside shaped like a 
skull outside the gates of the ancient walls of Jerusalem.  In time under 
the sponsorship of a British charity it became a favoured alternate site 
of the crucifixion and burial place in a beautiful garden close by.  Today 
it rivals the traditional site as a tourist attraction.  

It is easy for preachers and congregations alike to recall those images 
far more than Mark's actual text even while reading or listening to it.  
The sparseness of the scripture, however, elicits as  much as or more 
pathos than any artifact or picture.  

A six-year-old schoolboy became instantly terrified and ran back to the 
shelter of the family car when he stared into the hideously cruel face of 
a Roman soldier depicted by a larger than life cast of the crucifixion in 
an outdoor Stations of the Cross beside a Quebec orphanage.  The memory 
remains after more than seventy years.  The soldier held a huge hammer 
poised to strike a nail into Jesus' hand.  Mark's description (15:23) of 
the soldiers offering Jesus wine mixed with myrrh, a common analgesic of 
the time, belies that crude sculpture.

The haunting derision of the crowds and the perpetrators of Jesus' 
condemnation (vss. 29-32) has all the violence of a 21st century mob 
shouting curses at those who published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed 
perceived as blasphemous.  

Exactly what significance should be attached to the cry of dereliction in 
vs. 34?  A number of years ago, a theological essay presented the thesis 
that Jesus in that moment indeed felt totally isolated from God.  Was he 
actually abandoned by God to death?  Was the moment when he descended into 
hell as the later creedal formula stated? Later exegesis and scriptural 
references held that Jesus had to die and be totally excluded from God's 
presence in order that pre-Christian saints might be rescued from eternal 
death. (Cf. Rev. 1:18; Heb. 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:6).  A less controversial 
exegesis points to Ps. 22:1 as the origin of this "word from the cross."

Translations and versions of vs. 39 differ as to the exact article ("a" or 
"the") preceding the phrase "son of God." The debate has theological 
significance for many.  Perhaps the focus should be on the centurion and 
not on crucified.  Was he impressed by the loud cry the dying man emitted 
and interpreted it as a triumphant cry of victory?  Whatever modern 
fiction or religious sentimentality may have made of the incident, as a 
non-theological pagan, the soldier could only regard his victim as a 
divine hero and not "the* Son of God."  On the other hand, perhaps Mark 
too had already accepted the developing of creedal statements about Jesus 
(cf. Luke 17:5-6; John 20:28; Acts 9:10-11; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11).

In the remaining scenes of Mark's Passion story, three Galilean women have 
primacy of place along with Joseph of Arimathea.  The women were witnesses 
to the crucifixion while the male disciples had long since disappeared 
(cf. John 19:25-27).  They also witnessed the burial and they were the 
first to learn of the resurrection.  Mark's may well have given them such 
prominence to signal that they had been the source of his information, or 
at least confirmation of the events he described.

Joseph of Arimathea leads to a different possibility.  To quote Prof. J.R.  
Donahue, S.J., of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, "In Mark, passion 
traditions become a passion theology.  The reader is called on to affirm 
in faith that the lowly one is the Messiah, that the way of discipleship 
is the way of the Cross, and that the small band who wait in Galilee will 
be 'the temple not made with hands' (14:58)."  Other scholars have 
questioned that the incidents related in this narrative all derived from 
oral traditions circulating for a generation before being written into 
Mark's Gospel.  The pattern behind the story is very similar to that of 
the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.  The burial scene (15:42-47) has its 
type in Isaiah 53:9 "They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with 
the rich."
 
John Dominic Crossan, on the other hand, has proposed an even more radical 
solution to the question of the sources behind Mark's Passion narrative.  
(*Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel 
Story of the Death of Jesus*, Harper Collins 1995.)  Crossan does believe 
that some of the events narrated in Mark's Passion did happen, i.e the 
crucifixion did happen.  He goes further to claim that an earlier, 
independent source existed prior to and was used by Mark and the other 
canonical gospels.  He claims that this narrative is still discernible in 
the Gospel of Peter.  (See *The Complete Gospels.* Robert J.  Miller, ed.  
Polebridge Press, 1992.)  Only a fragment of this gospel dating from the 
late 2nd or early 3rd century has so far been discovered.  Nonetheless, 
"scriptural memory" of several Old Testament references may well lie 
behind the Passion narrative.  Crossan calls this "prophecy historicized" 
rather than "history remembered" in a "Cross Gospel" used by Mark.  
Specific elements of the story Crossan finds in Psalm 2, prophecies of 
Isaiah and Zechariah, a scapegoat ritual, and instructions for the burial 
of a criminal in Deuteronomy 21:22-23.

This interpretation will not satisfy and may even enrage those whose faith 
depends on a literal or historical view of the Passion.  This alternative 
thesis is for those who are prepared to look beyond the words of the New 
Testament canon to the religious literature of the Jewish people which 
formed the holy scriptures for the early Christians.  Such an imaginative 
reconstruction based in part on actual events and on scriptural references 
and allusions only adds to the lure of the Passion story for those who 
wish to search for deeper insight.  


                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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