In the 1660s, the famous English diarist, Samuel Pepys, would go to church twice on Sundays – in the morning and in the afternoon. This was not because he was especially pious, but rather because a good sermon was free public entertainment. If the preacher didn’t go on for at least an hour, Pepys – and many others – thought he was neglecting his duty. That was before television. I wouldn’t dream of preaching for an hour, but after reading the whole of St Mark’s account of the Passion, I would like to draw your attention to a few details.
Let us start with Jesus’ agony in the garden at Gethsemane. While his disciples are dozing in the background, Jesus prays: Abba (Father), everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it. That reminds us of an earlier scene where James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asked our Lord to reserve privileged places for them in the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus asked them: Can you drink the cup that I must drink? Full of self-confidence they assured him that it was not a problem. Well, on this night they were going to discover that it could be a very challenging problem.
Immediately after the arrest of Jesus, St Mark writes: They all deserted him and ran away. Remember that a couple of years before, Jesus had called each of these men individually to follow him, and they had all left family and occupation to do so. They had accompanied him everywhere; they’d often heard him preach, and they’d witnessed many miracles. And what did they do on this night? They ran away!
It’s true that Peter followed at a distance, but during the sort of trial in the high priest’s palace, he didn’t exactly cover himself with glory. In fact he was to deny that he even knew Jesus – once, twice, THREE TIMES! Of course he was to regret his disloyalty, and we can think of Peter as the prototype of the forgiven sinner. All those disciples who fled after Jesus’ arrest were to go on and eventually to die martyrs’ deaths. Whatever sins we ourselves have committed, we should never forget that if we truly repent we can always be forgiven.
The following morning the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman prefect, accusing Jesus of the treasonable offence of claiming to be a king. Pilate could see that there wasn’t much evidence to support such a charge. He would have preferred to release Jesus, so he mentioned the custom of freeing one prisoner at festival time. “Would you like me to release the king of the Jews?” he asked. No they wouldn’t, and instead asked that Barabbas be liberated. Now we are familiar with the Hebrew word bar meaning ‘son of’, as in Simon bar Jonah; and we realise that abba is the Aramaic word for ‘father’; so Barabbas means ‘son of the father’. Furthermore, there is a non-Biblical tradition that this man’s first name was also Jesus: he was Jesus son of the father. So there is irony in the choice by the crowd of this prisoner in place of Jesus [of Nazareth] Son of God the Father.
Now there was a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria named Philo Judaeus. He died about the year 40 A.D. He actually met Pontius Pilate and described him as “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness”. Philo said of his governorship of Palestine that it was marked by “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages and wanton injuries, executions without trial constantly repeated, and ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty”. Yes, he would have preferred to release Jesus, but he wasn’t going to risk provoking a riot and jeopardizing his career in order to defend the human rights of some Galilean preacher.
Moving on to the crucifixion itself, which took place outside Jerusalem, beside a road leading into the city, listen again to Mark’s words: The passers-by jeered at him; they shook their heads and said, ‘Aha! So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Then save yourself: come down from the cross!’ The chief priests and the scribes mocked him among themselves in the same way. ‘He saved others,’ they said ‘he cannot save himself. Let the Christ the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, for us to see it and believe.’ Even those who were crucified with him taunted him. St Luke tells us that one of those crucified with him rebuked his companion for mocking Jesus and expressed faith in him. Here in Mark’s account there is only mockery. As Raymond E. Brown writes: “On the cross Jesus has no friends; he is a solitary righteous man closely surrounded on all sides by enemies.”
Yet a little way off there stood the group of women who used to follow him and look after him when he was in Galilee. And there were many other women who had come up to Jerusalem with him. They could not intervene in any way in the execution, but they felt sympathy for him, they watched everything, and they saw where Jesus was buried. On the morning of the resurrection they were able to go straight to the tomb and it was one of them, Mary of Magdala, who gave the first news of the resurrection to the disciples.
The centurion who commanded the execution squad would have been some sort of pagan. As a soldier he had seen death before, and probably violent death. Having witnessed Jesus’ death, he was moved to exclaim: In truth this man was a son of God. It is part of Mark’s artistry that it should be the pagan soldier who is first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God.
After the death of Jesus, another figure enters the story: Joseph of Arimathea. Mark describes him as a respected councillor – i.e. he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the body which had decided that Jesus was to be sentenced to death. He lived in hope of seeing the kingdom of God. That means he was a pious and learnèd Jew who looked forward to the fulfilment of the prophecies. There is no evidence that he knew or was a follower of Jesus. He would, however, have been familiar with the instruction in Deuteronomy: If a man guilty of a capital offence is put to death and you hang him on a tree, his body must not remain on the tree overnight; you must bury him the same day. He was acting as a devout Jew, observing the Law. It is probably because Joseph was a respectable citizen that Pilate agreed to let him take Jesus’ body and bury it. He might well have refused such a request from someone in the ragtag group of Jesus’ followers.
All our lives we have been listening to the story of Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, but each time there is something new to discover. So I exhort you this week to take some time at home to re-read this story and to reflect on God’s great love for each one of us. Then we might devoutly pray that hymn from Philippians: His state was divine, yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Contributor)