Talking about the Passion

29 March 2015
Palm/Passion Sunday
Palm Sunday B (RCL)
Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1 — 15:47

We don’t often read large chunks of scripture liturgically. We usually chop it up into little bits of a few verses at a stretch. This is one of the few Sundays when we read two chapters in course. And, the chapters we read are at the heart of the Christian myth. It is a story we are all familiar with, at least cursorily. But reading Mark’s Passion reminds me how little we know about the whole story. There are all kinds of little, puzzling details that seem to obtrude into the story.

First, there is the woman who anoints Jesus for his burial. “Messiah,” of course, means “anointed one.” This unnamed woman makes Jesus the Messiah. It’s strikes me as odd that her name is not recorded — Mark remembers that Simon of Cyrene is the father of Alexander and Rufus, a seemingly insignificant detail, but not this woman’s name. It is a common narrative device to leave unnamed characters in a narrative, where the readers can insert themselves. Is this such a place? The others complain about her waste, without recognizing the honor she has paid Jesus. Immediately following her act, Judas leaves to seek to betray Jesus. I think the two are meant to serve as contrasts.

Another unnamed character is the young man (neaniskos) dressed only in a linen cloth (sindona) over his nakedness. When the crowd tries to grab him, he flees naked. If a catechumen were hearing this Gospel read in its entirety on the night before his or her baptism, this would be a place in the narrative they might hear themselves. When Joseph of Arimathea receives the body of Jesus, he wraps it in a sindona. When the women go to the tomb on Sunday morning, they encounter a young man (neaniskos). The newly baptized (or about to be baptized), will disrobe and be enrobed in a new garment, and then become proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection. They will also, like the unnamed woman, anoint or proclaim Jesus messiah (anointed).

The passion story itself appears to me to modeled on a Roman triumph (see Koester, “Jesus the Victim,” SBL 111 no 1, 1992). Jesus is enthroned on the cross, just as a victorious imperator would be enthroned in the Senate. The centurion points to Jesus and says, “Surely this man was divi fili,” a title for Caesar. The passion turns our understanding of power on its head. Also, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two, signifying God leaving the inner sanctum. Both political and religious power are subverted.

When the High Priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, Jesus replies “I AM,” the divine name. When Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews (the Messiah), he replies, “You say so.” The kind of messiah-ship imagined by Mark’s community looks different from the political power expected by others. This is no direct challenge to Pilate and Rome, though indirect.

The question remains for us, how the passion subverts our power structures, both religious and political. Nothing can remain unchanged.

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