The narrative of Jesus’ suffering and death is an important part of our collective memory as Christians. For almost 2,000 years Christians have gathered at this time of year to retell the story of Jesus’ passion. It is not the story of a mythical or fictional character. Rather, it is the story of a real historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who was arrested, tortured and executed in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. The readings for Palm-Passion Sunday enrich and keep alive the dangerous memory of Jesus.
It is from Mark that we derive the framework of Holy Week. The week begins with Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem (11:1-10), at the end of his long journey with his disciples from northern Galilee. Mark’s narrative of Palm Sunday introduces some themes that will be prominent in his passion narrative: Jesus knowingly and willingly embraces his fate; he is not only a humble messiah but even a suffering messiah; and he acts in accord with God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures.
The readings for today’s Mass are among the richest texts in the Christian Bible. The passage from Isaiah 50 is one of the so-called Servant Songs. While the precise historical identity of the Servant (the prophet himself, the king of Judah, a leader in the exile community, the community itself, Israel as a collective) remains mysterious, it is clear that early Christians found in this figure a type or anticipation of Jesus. The Servant of Isaiah 50 is a poet-prophet like Jesus, who endures mockery and physical harm in carrying out his divinely appointed mission. Despite his sufferings he remains true to his calling out of the conviction that “the Lord God is my help.”
Today’s responsorial psalm is made up of verses from Psalm 22, one of the lament psalms. The first words in this psalm (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”) are the last words of Jesus according to Mark (see 15:34). However, they are not words of despair or disappointment. It is important to read the whole psalm, all 31 verses, and to take account of the literary conventions of the laments. After the direct address (“My God”), there are alternating sections of complaints about the speaker’s present sufferings and affirmations of his trust in God. Then following a plea for God’s help, there are 10 verses that constitute an invitation to celebrate the speaker’s restoration and vindication by God. Early Christians found in this lament psalm not only the prophecy of Jesus’ passion and death but also a foreshadowing of his vindication in the resurrection.
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is generally regarded as an early Christian hymn that celebrates the abasement and the exaltation of Jesus Christ. The first stanza recounts the incarnation and the passion and death of Christ as the Servant of God. By taking on our humanity Christ “emptied” himself of the trappings of divinity and embraced the most difficult aspects of human existence—suffering and death. The second stanza celebrates the resurrection and exaltation of Christ the Servant, and all creation joins in proclaiming him as “Lord.” All of these texts help us to remember the sufferings of Jesus, while reminding us that in his case suffering and death did not have the last word.
Mark’s Gospel is often described as a passion narrative with a long introduction, since the passion story (14:1—15:47) is so climactic and important in its overall plan. According to Mark, Jesus was a wise teacher and a powerful healer and miracle worker. He acts out of divine authority, and what he says and does constitutes the inauguration or presence of God’s kingdom. But Mark insists that Jesus’ identity as teacher and miracle worker can be properly understood only in light of the mystery of the cross. Among the themes running through the Markan passion narrative, the three mentioned above in connection with the Palm Sunday account are especially prominent: Jesus knowingly and willingly goes to his death; he is a humble and suffering messiah; and all proceeds according to God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures.
In the phrase made popular in theological circles by Johannes Baptist Metz, the story of Jesus’ passion and death constitutes a “dangerous memory.” His memory confronts us with the terrible realities of misunderstanding, injustice and innocent suffering. And his memory places before us the surprising possibility that God can and does accomplish great things even in the midst of terrible sufferings. Holy Week helps us keep Jesus’ memory alive.