Lenten Reflection (Sr Eileen O’Connell OP)
Throughout his Gospel, Mark forewarns of Jesus’ ultimate fate – opposition and misunderstanding accompany his public ministry. We have been propelled, almost relentlessly, with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the cross. This Sunday, we have arrived. In the text for the Procession, we hear of Jesus’ dramatic entry into the city of Jerusalem. We can only assume that among the enthusiastic crowd are some who will soon shout for Jesus to be crucified and mock him as he dies.
Mark’s Gospel is concerned with Jesus’ identity and with discipleship. The opening verse tells us Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. But what this means – both for Jesus and for us as his disciples – can be known only at the cross. Without seeing the centrality of suffering to his mission, and correspondingly to ours as his followers, we cannot understand Jesus or be true disciples. Watching Jesus suffer and die, one of his killers, the Roman centurion, is moved to faith and can answer the question ‘who do you say I am?’
Today’s passages from Isaiah and St. Paul underscore Mark’s message. Like the ‘suffering servant’, the Messiah will be rejected, persecuted, experience abandonment and be killed an apparent failure. As God’s disciple, Jesus lives authentic discipleship: forgoing privilege and status to endure suffering and, ultimately, death. The hymn from Paul summarises the Paschal Mystery. We see the extent of Jesus’ self-emptying love: ‘he did not cling to equality with God.’ Discipleship also demands trust in, and acceptance of, God’s will. In Gethsemane, Jesus’ distress and anguished prayers to the Father end: ‘not my will, but yours.’ He is prepared to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’, even though he will be rejected by that ‘many,’ even his friends.
In his account of the Passion, Mark emphasises Jesus’ isolation, which reaches its peak on the cross. Jesus experiences rejection, betrayal and denial by those who might support him: family, friends, religious leaders, the Jerusalem crowds, and finally those dying with him. Apart from the women disciples, everyone deserts him, leaving him friendless among his enemies. Jesus dies very much alone. Jesus’ abandonment is added to by God’s participation. Despite his acquiescence to God’s will, it appears that Jesus feels even God has deserted him – the final, perhaps most significant, rejection. The starkness of Jesus’ isolation and powerlessness is highlighted in his loud cry to ‘God’, rather than his ‘Abba.’
Jesus fully divine and fully human, reveals God and shows what it is to be human -ultimately, dependent on God. Faced with the inevitability of meaningless suffering, Jesus’ suffering can be a source of hope and reassurance, allowing us to know a God who suffers with us in the person of Jesus. With his dying words, Jesus identifies with all those who experience being deserted. Here, we meet our God who enters wholly into humankind’s humiliation and suffering. Although Jesus dies an apparent failure, we know the cross is not the end. The resurrection means Jesus is hugely significant for us. Despite Jesus’ sense of being ‘forsaken’, God had not abandoned him. Likewise, God will not leave us alone.
The Holy Week ceremonies draw us into the events of the final days of Jesus’ life. Like the prophet Isaiah, each of us is called to ‘listen like a disciple,’ to be open to the voice of God. When we discover the Good News, it is not for ourselves alone. Our task as preachers is to share it: the Lord has given each of us ‘a disciple’s tongue’ so that we can ‘reply to the wearied’ with a word of life.
During this Holy Week, may our faith be deepened and may we experience with Christ the Paschal Mystery, dying and rising with him to new life.
Sr. Eileen O’Connell OP