In this holiest of weeks, we could not have two more contrasting portraits of Jesus than Mark’s account of the passion, read on Palm Sunday, and John’s on Good Friday.
Mark’s version is stark, depicting a very human Jesus. In Gethsemane Jesus falls prostrate in deep distress. Three times he begs God to let the cup pass him by; three times his pleas are met with silence. At earlier crucial turning points, Jesus had concrete signs of God’s presence and affirmation (an overshadowing cloud and a heavenly voice), but in Gethsemane there is only terrifying silence. Before him, across the Kidron Valley, rises the Temple, with its officials who want him dead. Behind him, beyond the Mount of Olives, is the Judean desert. He could yet slip away and avoid death for the time being. What was God’s will? Jesus finds no discernible response; all he can do is rely on his previous experiences of God’s faithful love. Not knowing how God will bring the divine will for life and love to fullness through his brutal execution, Jesus chooses to remain in trust.
As the Sanhedrin and Pilate interrogate Jesus, he remains silent, like the Servant in Is 53:7. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not silent in the face of injustice; he denounced it and acted to rectify it. Here, his refusal to engage with representatives of corrupt systems can be read as a silent protest against them.
The desolate portrait of a Jesus abandoned continues unrelieved as Mark recounts the mockery by the soldiers, the march to the place of execution, and the verbal and physical abuse at Golgotha. Jesus’ final words are an anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” By invoking Psalm 22, Mark helps us to see that even when one cannot sense God’s presence or understand how God’s saving purposes are at work in excruciating suffering, the Holy One never abandons any beloved daughter or son.
The mystery deepens at the empty tomb. The enigmatic ending of Mark’s Gospel (16:1-7), which is proclaimed at the Easter Vigil, does not explain suffering and death, but insists that they do not have the last word. The Gospel ends on a note of profound mystery and awe, inviting us to abandon ourselves into the unfathomable love of Holy Mystery, following the Risen One, and trusting in his transformative power at work within us. Like the women at the tomb, we too are to announce this mysterious, abiding love.
A far different portrait of Jesus is offered to us in the Fourth Gospel. Here Jesus knows all that is to happen and even seems to direct the action. In the footwashing that we re-enact ritually on Holy Thursday, Jesus interprets the meaning of his death through an acted parable: “he loved them to the end [eis telos].” The Greek expression has a double meaning: “completely” and “to the end.” Jesus demonstrates that his death is his free choice to lay down his life for his friends out of love (Jn 10:17-18; 13:1-20; 15:13-17). What he does for them is a model of how they are to serve one another and even go to calamity’s depths for any of the beloved.
In the garden, the Johannine Jesus does not fall prostrate or beg God to take away the cup. Rather, it is the soldiers who fall to the ground when Jesus speaks the revelatory words, “I AM.” He is eager to move toward his “hour,” saying, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” The disciples do not abandon Jesus, but are ready to defend him. It is Jesus, however, who protects them, insisting that the arresting party take only him. At the trial before Pilate, Jesus does not remain silent. Rather, it is he who conducts the proceedings, and the procurator who is under scrutiny. In the end, Pilate brings condemnation upon himself, because he cannot decide in favor of the one who is the true king before him.
In John’s account of the crucifixion, Jesus appears to be reigning already from the cross. At the foot of the cross stands not only Mary Magdalene, as in all the Gospels, but also Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. These two are never named in the Gospel and allow us to identify with their symbolic roles. Jesus speaks to them, entrusting those who are bound to him by blood ties to those who are “his own” through discipleship. All are embraced as his kin. The last words of Jesus are a confident declaration: “It is finished” (tetelestai). The Greek word (19:30) has the same root as telos (13:1), tying the whole passion narrative together as the completion of Jesus’ mission to love to the full, to the end. A unique detail in Jn 19:34 gives us one other powerful image by which to interpret Jesus’ death. A soldier pierces Jesus’ side, from which flow blood and water, the same liquids that accompany childbirth. Jesus’ death is not the end of life but the portal to a new birth and endless life.
At the empty tomb, the driving question is: where is Jesus now? The answer comes in two parts. On Easter morning, we hear the first half of the answer: he has returned to the Father (20:1-9). On Tuesday in the Octave of Easter we hear the second half. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him as the earthly person she knew previously. He directs her to go to the gathered community of the brothers and sisters: it is there that he is to be found alive (20:11-18).
Note: The Word column for the Second Sunday of Easter (April 19) will not appear in the next print edition of America, dated April 13, which will be a special issue celebrating America’s centennial. The column will appear on America’s Web site on April 3 and in the print edition dated April 20-27.