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Palm Sunday: The real inner circle

Today’s readings: Isaiah 50, 4-7; Philippians 2, 6-11; Mark 14, 1 - 15, 47.

Isaiah’s portrait in today’s first reading in what is known as one of the canticles of the suffering servant, provides the prophet’s blueprint for the prophetic mission that Israel was called for. Israel, depicted here as with a “disciple’s tongue” and “making no resistance”, is heavily in contrast with the unfaithful Israel whom the prophet Isaiah very often scolds and condemns.

This same vision of the prophet, which has an incredible parallelism with what Jesus went through in the passion narrative, prefigures for us also the vision for the prophetic mission of the Church and of every single Christian believer in the face of the suffering and violence that perennially characterise the world we inhabit.

The governing theme of the way St Mark in his gospel tells the story of the last days of Jesus is that he was left more and more visibly alone. He is progressively set apart from his inner circle of the disciples, let down by the religious and political establishment, and feeling ultimately even abandoned by the Father. The passion narrative in St Mark’s gospel is the oldest version and most probably the most adherent realistically to the facts as they occurred. The fact that the backdrop of what St Mark is narrating is the resurrection, in no way discredits what St Mark is proclaiming about Jesus. The audience whom St Mark is addressing knew that the narrative was in itself a proclamation, rather than simply a factual journalistic front page story.

It was ‘proclamation’ because what St Mark mostly wanted to demonstrate was that God’s love was really made manifest in this man Jesus, in his aloneness and in his apparent failure. What was the foundational message in St Mark’s gospel, was what actually shattered the faith of the disciples. It was hard for them to acknowledge that the one condemned to death was really the Son of God, the one they had believed in but whom now they are witnessing as victim of those forces of evil which he himself had so often uncovered.

This is the mystery of the humanity of God which disturbed the faith of the Jews and which continues to be disturbing throughout the entire history of Christianity to this very day.  As the prophet Isaiah shows in the first reading, it is in this faceless person who “did not cover his face against insult and spittle” that the Lord manifests Himself.

In the unfolding of the story of this man Jesus our failures are prefigured and the negativity of the world is projected to us as if on a screen. It is no coincidence that in this context, the confession of faith does not come from the head of the apostles of Jesus, but from a non-believer, the pagan centurion at the feet of the cross, who exclaimed: “This was a great and good man”.

This is a very significant displacement where authentic faith is concerned. It is a displacement we can very easily witness even in our times. True and authentic belief is not necessarily to be found in the corridors of officialdom. The only condition for God’s manifestation is authenticity, not orthodoxy. This makes us ask deep and serious questions about the status  of belief today.

So it is no coincidence that this last chapter in the Jesus story leading to his crucifixion starts with Jesus at dinner in Bethany where a woman, not identified, poured a very costly ointment on Jesus’ head, symbolising the anointing of a king. The scene is an agitated one, with Jesus declaring that his hour had come and with people objecting to this anointing.

The narrative opens with the anointing on the part of this unidentified woman and ends with the belief of the pagan centurion. These happen to be two outsiders who actually, at this fateful hour of Jesus, become his real inner circle. Perhaps this is the most powerful aspect of this whole story, which shows how belonging to the history of redemption is a matter of where we actually and concretely stand in life, and whether at such pivotal moments we are open enough to receive the gift of God’s graceful presence.

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