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Mark The Passion
By Brian Traynor, CP
Think about the word "memory". Imagine a man rowing up a river. He cannot afford to look where he is going, but must instead face the way he is coming from! Looking back is his guide to where he is going. Our memories are like that. The memories we hold about our past (where we have been) very much shape where we are going. Although some of our memories are unpleasant, others are very positive. Some people have a positive memory bank while others have a very negative memory bank. Psychoanalysts make their living out of picking up people's past and trying to get them to re-live or re-shape it.
In the third Eucharistic Prayer we are invited to ‘call to mind’, or ‘to remember’, the death of Jesus. In the fourth Eucharistic Prayer we are called ‘to celebrate the memorial’, (the living memory) of Jesus' Passion. What does that mean? What does it mean to ‘call to mind’ the Passion, or to celebrate the living memory? The phrase ‘living memory of the Passion’ can sound a bit strange at first. In fact it is a call to live with a constant and active memory of God overcoming weakness and suffering. The first community that heard Mark's Gospel was a community that was suffering persecution, and the lens through which they focused their memories, was the Jesus who had suffered.
The four Gospels present Jesus' death quite differently. In John's Gospel Jesus is quite in control of what's happening and says "it is finished, it's all over". Mark's Gospel it's not like that at all. It is not tidy. Jesus dies yelling out in a loud voice ('screaming'). Before this scream he exclaims the opening words of Psalm 22, "My God my God why have you abandoned me".
One of the clear messages about this is that there is no one script for dying. The Gospels tell us this very clearly and it is borne out in the lives and deaths of people every day. Some people die in horrible ways. Stephen was a thirty-four year old country town New Zealander. He was a husband and father of three children. He had the reputation in his town of being a ‘good samaritan’. If anyone was in trouble, Stephen would always stop and help them. One Thursday afternoon some women reported seeing a couple of boys, aged fifteen or sixteen, trying to stop passing motorists because their car was broken down. None of the women who were going to pick up children from tennis, stopped for the boys. They may well have been scared of hitchhikers. Stephen Slavich did stop. He helped the two boys for about ten minutes but could not get their car started. He then offered to take them into town. On the way, one of the boys shot him, and tried to throw him out of the car, but Stephen got caught in the seatbelt. The boys tried to shake him loose, and for almost four kilometres he was dragged along the road and was horribly mutilated. It was a horrible, painful death. His family and friends asked "Why?" Why does a good man who was trying to help others, die so horribly ?
If one reads Mark's Gospel one could ask the same question, because Jesus' death is dramatic. Why did he have to die and why did it have to be so horrible ?
My mother died of motor neurone disease. It is a nasty illness in which nerve muscles don't receive messages from the brain, and a person loses control and strength in their limbs. I frequently visited a lady in Brisbane who died of the same disease. Sheila was thirty six years old and the mother of two young daughters. She had worked through the process of letting go and dying. I wasn't present when she died but her two brothers told me "we thought she was accepting of death, but in the end when the drugs were wearing off she was really embarrassing; she was swearing and screaming out". Why does this happen?" There is an important precedent for this.
Jesus' death, according to Mark was without honour. His friends ran away. He lost his speech and his clothing, He was naked and without control. Jesus seemed so often to have been in conflict. When you hear the gospel, rather than read it, it is amazing just noisy it is. There are people shouting and screaming, and at times it seems as if peace has been taken away from Jesus. He is continually contesting issues with the Pharisees; people are demanding cures and answers from him. It is not a ‘pretty’ picture.\
Initially the disciples of Jesus are very enthusiastic, but the further they go, the more unfaithful they become. They continually fail to understand, and there is a timely warning in that for all of us; it is easy to be enthusiastic at the beginning, but the more we understand the implications of what Jesus calls us to, the more difficult it is. It is interesting that at the end of the Gospel when Jesus dies, it's not a disciple who proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, (the only time that phrase is used since the beginning of the account), but a Roman Centurion.
Why did the Centurion say it? Because he saw 'the way Jesus died'. How did Jesus die? Defeated, weak, and screaming out! Yet the Centurion sees in this moment of weakness something that the disciples have not been able to comprehend. Witnessing to weakness is a profound experience that changes his life. This portrayal of the uncomprehending disciples is an encouragement to the early Christians to whom Mark was writing
It is an invitation to see that power is not gaining or holding on, but letting go. The powerful person is the one who can be little, and can appreciate the ‘ordinary’. This Centurion symbolises the opportunity for us to see that God is most clearly revealed in weakness. It can sound stupid at first. A man once said to me "the way the media presents pop or sports stars to young people is very unfortunate; kids don't need heroes, they need friends. They don't need to be spectacular; they have to be ordinary".
I really appreciated that lesson in 1978 when I was conducting a parish mission in New Zealand. One of the priests who was to work with me, became ill. With the approval of the local parish priest we arranged for Bob, who had just been ordained and was living in New Zealand at the time, to work as a partner with me. I explained to the priest that Bob was new to this ministry, but that I wanted to give him the opportunity. Bob volunteered to present a forty minute session on the history of the Church and I gave him my notes and overhead transparency sheets.
He took three days to get ready for this session and when Wednesday evening came, his face just broke into a sweat. He stood beside the overhead projector which quickly became out of focus. He placed the first sheet on the overhead projector upside down, then back the front. Finally he got it right, turned around and saw on the screen the Greek word "Ecclesia". Bob panicked and said something like, "The Church is Ecclesia. That's the Church because there are a lot of Greeks in the church; the Church was all Greeks and they are Ecclesia because they were all Greeks and there were a lot of them and they started the Church off." I was sitting nearby thinking we've got 2000 years of history to cover and Bob is struggling with the Greeks!
The longer it went, the worse it got. Somehow or other though, Bob stumbled through it in about an hour and ten minutes and I think he lost about seven kilos doing it! I abbreviated the material we still had to cover and the session came to an end. The people knew Bob had struggled and many thanked him as they left the Church. Bob even said to me he'd be willing to do another session on Friday.
On Thursday morning after we finished another session in the Church and returned to the presbytery, the secretary had about twenty phone messages from people who wanted to speak to Father Bob. There was not a single message for me! I learned then that many people in the church could relate to Bob because they felt the same way. They could relate to the person who was stumbling, trying to ‘get it out’. They thought Bob would understand them, unlike me who looked like I knew what I was doing. Some would have thought “that person won’t understand if I say I'm weak or I'm in trouble".
That seems to be the message of the Cross. People are attracted to weakness! Jesus spent much of his time with the ‘weak’ ordinary people. Many were the classic outcasts of the time. The people Jesus chose to be his followers were questioners, doubters, non-understanders. They were ordinary people like fishermen and a tax collector. The Passion in Mark presents us with this issue of weakness or contrast against power, and as we approach the scene with Pilate, these opposing forces are highlighted, Pilate is one symbol of power and Jesus is an opposite symbol. Pilate has everything, including a club and sword. Jesus has a crown of thorns and a torn cloak. The crowds are laughing at him. Yet it is interesting that Pilate is the one who has to seek advice as to what he has to do. He is not nearly as strong as Jesus. The women who stay with Jesus and the Roman centurion, are able to see in this caricature of weakness, something that appeals to them; something that they can relate to.
The Gospel of Mark finishes with an empty tomb and the warning "I'm going to see you in Galilee". This is a promise of reconciliation which is to be the hallmark of the early church. That early church formed by the first disciples could not afford to be caught up in arrogance. Rather it had to be a church marked by compassion forgiveness and hospitality.
The gospel of Mark invites us to 'let go', in imitation of Jesus. Jesus is letting go all the time. Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. 'Letting go' is not a once off action. It is a pattern of living. St. Paul wrote about this theme so well when he said to the Ephesians "I live, no I don't, it's Christ who lives in me". In his letter to the Philippians he describes this letting go as 'self emptying'.
This ‘letting go’ is the mindset that says I want to try to be empty of myself and to be filled with God. Rather than saying "I want to do God's will", it says "I want God's will to be done in me. This is what Mary said, 'let it be done to me according to your word'. In the Gethsemane garden, Jesus prays "I don't want this to happen, but your will be done".
I was talking to a married couple who persistently put themselves out for other people, despite a lot of hardship. They've got every reason to give it up, because they have severe difficulties with their own family. I asked them "what keeps you going in these difficult times ? The wife replied "That's what Jesus calls us to do; to lay our lives down" She went on to say "we've got a responsibility to all these people; we've got to try and do what we can to reach them, it's not important to keep worrying about what it's costing us because He will give us the strength".
A woman who had a brain tumour removed, phoned me. She called to say that she had suffered a major epileptic fit. The doctors told her that they were unsure of the full implications but that one thing was certain, "you won't be able to drive a car ever again". She was a mother of five children; four of them were under teenage years. The family were living in an outer suburb where they are dependent upon the family car. It put the whole family into chaos, because the could not rely on her for the transport they needed. Although she could work two days a week, she was unbe unable to drive to work.
Her response to this news was "I feel consistently that I'm being stripped of my independence; of the things that I would like to have control over and although in the past I've had reason to doubt what God is doing to me, he has always seen me through and I just have to see in this, another invitation to let go and let God lead me to where he wants me to be".
This is ‘living the memory of the Passion’. She is laying her life down (letting go) and putting her life in God's hands; living day to day with that attitude. It comes from a conviction that if I give my life over to God totally, then everything will be alright, "no harm will come to me, no arrow strike me down" (refer to psalm 122 'My God my God why have you forsaken me"). That is what this woman believed. Like Jesus, she had reason to doubt, but God had always seen her through. This mind (the same mind as Christ Jesus) says "if I say yes to the God in me and no to the me in me, then everything will be okay".
This is well expressed in the song 'Me and Bobby McGee". There is a line in that song that says 'freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose'. When you've got nothing left to lose, especially your life, you're free. Jesus said "no-one takes my life from me, I give it up of my own accord”; “I'm free". When the disciples asked "Who is the greatest" Jesus taught them to see things in a new way. His invitation is to change our everyday mindset from 'grabbing for power or control' to 'letting go and putting our life in God's hands'. The Greek "metanoia" means a ‘change of nous’ or common sense. Jesus calls for this change in our every day living.
A woman wrote to a newspaper looking for a man. She was ninety years old and two days earlier she had been caught in a very heavy downpour. A man seeing her drenched by the rain gave her his cardigan and disappeared. The woman was keen to locate this man so she could return his cardigan and thank him. This is a very ordinary situation. The man has seen another person in need, responded and disappeared. There was no need for him to say 'here's my phone number, return the cardigan sometime'. This was instantaneous ‘laying down of life’ for someone else.
These are the everyday practical ways that faith is lived. There is no use having pious words for it. It has to be as spontaneous as the man giving his cardigan. It has to be acted out in real life situations. It has to be acted out like Stephen who was killed responding to a situation of need. It always cost Stephen Slavich to help others. One day it cost him his life. He died as he lived. He accepted the call to lay his life down and to trust that if he put his life in God's hands, all would be well. To some this is foolishness. To others an obstacle to believing, but to us it is the power and wisdom of God.
There is a great story at the beginning of Mark's Gospel about a leper who came to Jesus. He could have had any kind of serious skin disease but being a leper he was forced to stay away from people because he was unclean. We need to really appreciate what that must have been like, because we don't have any experience that's common to it. An individual's whole self-esteem would have been shattered because the law prescribed that a leper had to dress with torn clothes, hair messed up and face covered. A leper was required to ring a bell or tell people "I'm unclean, stay away from me". It must have been a horrible.
This particular man believed that if he went up to Jesus he wouldn't be told to go away and the account tells us that he said to Jesus "You can make me clean if you want to". Jesus replied "of course I want to" and embraced him. That could be the end of the story. however Jesus warned him "don't tell anyone what I've done", because it was against the law to touch a leper. The man went away and started telling ‘everybody’. We find that Jesus had to go and live in the wasteland. So, it seems, Jesus became a leper! The interesting thing is that this event occurs at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. So it is clear whatever Jesus came to offer, to show people, he was prepared to ‘throw it all away’ for a stranger, a leper. Or was that in fact the meaning of his ministry - total self-giving ? He was prepared to embrace this person and become a leper himself, because he was moved with compassion, touched by the weakness of this man who needed healing.
Jesus had that capacity which we are invited to imitate. He was totally compassionate. It didn't make any difference what the person's background was, Jesus was able to reach out and say "you're a person of worth, you are lovable". There are so many people who badly need to be loved. Many people feel they are unlovable, and others consistently avoid them, perhaps because they can't speak their language very well, or they come from the wrong country, or they're too big, or disabled in some way. They are the people who most need the compassion that Mark's Gospel highlights.
Mark's Gospel leaves us with the empty tomb. With a little imagination we can think of some of the things that happened in the months soon after. What was happening with the apostles and the other followers ? There must have been a lot of reconciliation going on. Perhaps one way to imagine it, is to think of them celebrating Eucharist. What would it have been like when Peter sat down at the Eucharist and found the woman who anointed Jesus' feet was also there; or James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who wanted to be first in the kingdom found the Roman centurion on one side and Salome on the other side,
What about Phillip who asked "when are we going to see the Father ?" Maybe he’d have have looked around and seen Barthameus the blind man, beside him. What would have been going on in their hearts when they realised 'we've got a real mixture here; there's no-one who can be arrogant about having all the faith or having it all together; Peter's the one who denied him; James and John have argued about who's the greatest; we've all got one thing in common - we're weak and Jesus has touched our lives, in our own weakness. He has invited us to take that weakness and offer it to other people'. If those twelve disciples had been ideal followers, how could we have hoped to follow knowing our weakness ? What message would we have for anyone ? In fact we can see in those early disciples that a follower of Jesus, can fail. We are always forgiven.
The film "Places in the Heart" starts with a meal. A law officer is called from the meal and is subsequently killed. His wife employs a black man to work on her farm. A lot of arguing goes on in the South American community over this issue. There's murder, hurt and falling out. The film ends with a (Eucharistic) celebration in a chapel. The cup is being passed around and as you watch the cup being passed around, suddenly there are people receiving and passing on the cup, who have previously died in the film, including the man who was murdered, and the man who murdered him.
All these different characters who make up the web of life are being reconciled and are sharing the one cup. It seems that same thing was happening in that early community of Mark. Those early Christians could not afford to overlook the fact that they were drawn together because of their weakness, and of their experience of Jesus touching them in their weakness.This is the message of hope for own world. There are so many families with hurt and weakness, who need healing. If we sometimes seem overwhelmed about what to do, we need to remember that the greatest sermon we can ever preach is our own life. There are too many sermons being preached by people who have never lived what they are preaching. Empty barrels make the most noise.
The message of the cross in Mark's Gospel is about letting go and putting one’s life in God's hands. We start to do this in ordinary everyday ways with what the pportunities life offers us; our relationships with others. Jean Vanier, in an interview, was asked 'do you ever despair about the world, when you see all the problems in the world; things like nuclear warfare ?" He smilingly replied "first of all God is bigger than a nuclear bomb!”
He went on to say "when you see people coming to life; when you see people in relationships who reach out in service and care for one another, laying their lives down for one another; when you see those people coming to life, then you see resurrection. When you see this happening to others and when you see it in yourself then there's hope for all the world"
That thinking can be related to a story called 'the Rabbi's Gift'. It is a story about a group of five monks who are elderly, and the last of their kind. They keep saying 'there's no-one coming after us, what are we going to do?" They discussed this quite often. Eventually the abbott decided that he would go down to the woods to the rabbi's hut. He knew that the rabbi used to come from a far town and spend time in this hut, so he thought if he went there and saw him, he may elicit some valuable advice from him.
The abbot went to the hut and met the rabbi. He explained what the monks had been talking about. "Do you have any answer for us?" The rabbi said "No I don't; we have the same problem; people aren't coming to the synagogues. I don't know what the answer is." They read some of the Torah together. They prayed and cried about the situation. When the abbott was leaving he said "Are you sure you have no advice to give me ?" The rabbi replied "No I'm afraid I don't. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you". The abbot went back and reported to the Monks that he had nothing to offer. They questioned "Nothing ?" He replied "No; all he said as I was leaving was, 'one of you is the Messiah”. They said "What did he mean by that?" The abbot said "I don't know."
One by one they started thinking about what this message meant. “Did he mean one of us could be the Messiah ? Surely not”. “Well if it was true, who could it be ? It must be the abbott, he's been in charge and he's very faithful. It must be him. What if it's not him, what if it's Brother Thomas -he's pretty holy; but he's too ordinary; really it wouldn't be him - he's always at prayer and he's always helping people but it wouldn't be him”. “It wouldn't be Brother Alfred because he gets cranky at times, although when you think about it, he's also very kind and his judgment seems to be very good - he does seem to be always willing to help people”.
“It could be Brother Thomas I suppose but then he's much the same - you'd pass him and never even notice him. He doesn't seem to have anything special to offer except that he's a very holy person in that he is always kind and he's always there when you need him. If you're ever in trouble he's there”. “Well who could it be, it couldn't be me, what if I'm the Messiah? What if I don't know that I'm the Messiah?” Each of them went through the same process wondering if it was one of the others, and wondering if it wasn't themselves.
As they each started to live out the implications of this, they started to change their attitudes towards each other and to treat each other, even themselves, with incredible respect, in case it was them. The mood of the community changed. Many people noticed there was a change in the way the monks related to each other. There was much more kindness and love.
These people wanted to be a part of this atmosphere and some men wanted to join. The community was brought alive. In our ordinary every-day ways we can change the world. We have a reason to hope and we find it in the ordinariness or the weakness that is so much the message of Mark's Gospel.
Brian Traynor CP
(Acknowledgement of appreciation to Donald Senior CP for many sentiments expressed in this article).