As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Hearing the Word
“The Suffering Servant”
Passion Sunday, also known as Palm Sunday, invites us to reflect on the theme of the “Suffering Servant”. Commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, as the expression of his willing acceptance of his approaching suffering and death, this feast focuses on the theme of the willing acceptance of suffering.
The first reading to-day narrates the suffering of the servant of God, who is ridiculed, mocked and tortured. This text is the third of the four songs of the Servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13 – 53:12). Each of these songs focuses on a distinct aspect of this suffering servant’s experience. The third song lays great emphasis on his mission as a teacher of the nations. Like all teachers, he has first been taught, and his teacher was God himself. However, unlike Israel, the servant did not rebel against God and disregard his teaching. Rather he suffered in order to carry out his God-given mission. His resolve and determination, in the face of adversity and opposition, brought him much suffering and humiliation. Yet, his faith remained strong, and his commitment unwavering, to the point of accepting dishonour and disgrace, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting”. In spite of such humiliation, he had absolute confidence in the Lord, trusting in his vindicating and saving action, “the Lord God helps me; therefore, I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame”. It is this total confidence in the Lord that made the servant endure his afflictions. He completes his mission as the teacher of Israel despite grave and threatening difficulties. The silent and vicarious suffering of the servant in Isaiah’s songs was recognized by the Christians as the foreshadowing of Jesus’ passion. Jesus, God’s Son and God’s suffering servant, faced his own trials for the redemption of sinful humanity.
In to-day's second reading, the connection between the suffering servant and Jesus is made explicit by the apostle Paul. In this famous Christological hymn, Paul focuses on the self-effacing humility and obedience of Jesus. Though the hymn affirms both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the focus rests on the self-emptying (kenosis) of Jesus, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” As a result, God has exalted and glorified him, and his name is honoured throughout the world. Paul emphasizes Jesus’ willing act of embracing the identity of a servant, rather than clinging to his exalted status as God. The life and the entire mission of Jesus culminates in his selfless act of going to the cross, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Paul’s purpose in highlighting the humility and obedience of Jesus was to instruct the Philippians to abandon any form of the selfish and self-aggrandizing behaviour that divided their community at Philippi. Through this hymn, Paul sought to inspire his converts to become other-cantered like Jesus, rather than self-centred. And there was no better example of humility and service than that of Jesus Christ himself! Through becoming a servant Jesus brought God’s salvation to the world. Paul admonished his Christians, to embrace this self-sacrificing life style, as a way of building a community of God’s servants, capable of revealing the good news of salvation to the world. By becoming servants, they too, like Jesus, were offered a chance of playing an important part in God’s salvific plan.
The passion narrative of Mark describes the last days and hours in the life of Jesus. It also serves as the climax of the Gospel. In this account we find the portrayal of a variety of characters with diverse attitudes. However, they all have one thing in common – they all stand against Jesus, either by abandoning or directly attacking him. Thus, the disciples desert their master and flee in panic as Jesus is betrayed and arrested. The Jewish leaders, determined to have Jesus killed, bring fabricated charges against him and call false witnesses. Peter disowns his master. Pilate yields to the pressure of the crowd and fails to deliver justice to an innocent man. The crowd allows itself to be manipulated by the religious leaders, and demands Jesus’ death. The soldiers stage a mock royal investiture scene, torturing and humiliating the real King. Simon of Cyrene becomes a reluctant helper, forced to help a convicted criminal. At the cross Jesus is all alone, surrounded by the scoffers and enemies who mock him, with only a few devoted women disciples watching from a distance! The passion is the story of the lonely and horrible end, of a man whose life was completely focused on serving others in all possible ways.
Throughout his torment, Jesus remains firm in his convictions and resolve, determined to bring his mission to completion. Somewhat ironically, the only person who accurately recognized that Jesus succeeded, despite being executed, was his executioner, the Roman centurion. This pagan soldier, seeing Jesus’ death, exclaimed, “truly, this man was God’s Son!” This confession was not caused by some miraculous signs surrounding Jesus’ death, but rather by the manner of his death. The centurion recognized and acknowledges that Jesus’ death was the supreme and final expression of placing himself entirely in self-giving service to others. Mark shows that Jesus’ death on the cross, was the concluding proof of Jesus’ identity, as God’s suffering servant, and God’s Son, who brought about human redemption by his self-sacrifice.
Today the liturgy proclaims that suffering and death do not have to be a meaningless tragedy. Isaiah’s faithful servant suffers at the hands of his oppressors for the sake of his God-given mission. Thus he reveals that doing God’s will, will, at times, involve facing sufferings and afflictions. Paul’s hymn about the kenosis of Christ demonstrates that acts of self-emptying through self-sacrifice serve the greater purpose of building a harmonious community, where God’s grace can operate without hindrance. Finally, the climactic events of Jesus’ life reveal that suffering and death can be redemptive and purposeful. Every Christian who endures suffering is called to discover a meaning and purpose in it, and thus become a suffering servant himself or herself. This can happen only if one’s sufferings are united with Jesus’ own, and are endured with the intention and the purposes of bringing others closer to experiencing God’s salvation. When accepting sufferings courageously for the sake of God’s mission, and knowing from Jesus’ example that God does not abandon the trusting believer, Christians can confidently pray with the psalmist, “you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!”
Listening to the Word of God
A church building erected in the city of Accra has a banner placed in front of it with the bold inscription: STOP SUFFERING. Underpinning this quote is the belief that faith in Christ insulates a person from pain. In fact, I once heard a preacher on the radio emphatically saying: “It is impossible to have faith in Jesus and fall sick”. For many people, suffering in any form is unacceptable, and incompatible with the Christian faith. This has encouraged in the hearts of some Christians an aversion towards suffering of any kind. There are Christians who prefer to follow a Christ without a cross to a Christ with a cross. However, such a pursuit generally culminates in a wild goose chase, because suffering and salvation are in a mysterious way intricately intertwined. If we choose to follow the Christ of Sacred Scripture then we must brace ourselves to follow a “Suffering servant”.
The passion narrative, as recounted by Mark, ruffles religious ideas and sentiments founded on human principles. How on earth could God allow his only begotten Son to be subjected to such inhuman treatment? Could legions of angels from heaven not have descended to rescue him from the hands of evil doers? Where did all the power of Christ go in the face of his passion? As we struggle to find answers to these questions, Paul comes to our aid with a theology of suffering that serves as a light in the dark. Referring to Christ, Paul writes: “He emptied himself…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8). Inherent in this statement are three important virtues traceable and worth emulating in the person of Christ: Self-emptying, Humility and Obedience.
The choice by Christ, to empty himself and humbly submit wholeheartedly to the will of the Father, despite bodily pain, brings to mind the experience of the early Christians who also underwent excruciating torture and persecution on account of their faith in Christ. Reflecting on such experiences, Tertullian wrote: “The flesh is weak and the spirit is ready. Let flesh fear the torments as it may; if the spirit is ready, the flesh will endure with serenity”. True followers of Christ do not go looking for suffering. However, neither do they seek to avoid suffering through following a godless route. They choose to live a virtuous life even if that brings them suffering.
Per available statistics, there are billions of Christians worldwide. A good number of those who raise their hands to be counted as Christians are at best admirers, and not committed followers of the real Christ, the “Suffering servant”. These are people who love to sit on the grass and eat the bread and fish Jesus gives, but are unwilling to follow him to Gethsemane and Golgotha. The fear of losing oneself, friends, and material comfort, easily churns out Christians who seek to do more of their will than the will of God in their lives. They quench the flame of faith in their hearts, and live like everyone else. In fact, there are many silent apostates in our churches. These are people who appear to the eyes as faithful Christians, but who quietly renounce their faith whenever faced with any discomfort on account of their affiliation with the person of Christ.
Running away from suffering is instinctive and it is in fact the wise thing to do. However, when in a cowardly way we run away from suffering in every given situation, we end up creating other sufferings for ourselves. An African proverb says: “If you fear the snakes and scorpions in the farm, you would die of starvation.” Rejecting the will of God in the face of suffering is no way of escaping suffering itself.
It takes a person with a very sound inner spiritual life to follow the “Suffering Servant.” Jesus does not promise us a smooth ride when we sit in his car; however, with Jesus, we are sure of arriving at our destination. May the challenges that confront us daily on account of our union with Christ not dilute our adherence to our baptismal promises, but give us an opportunity to imitate Christ.
“If you fear the snakes and scorpions in the farm, you would die of starvation.”
What is my attitude towards suffering? Am I overly concerned about my bodily comfort to the extent that I choose love of self over and against love of the will of God?
Response to God
I meditate on the depth of God’s love for me expressed through the total self-giving of his Son. I choose to be inspired by this divine act and to respond by giving myself to others through selfless service.
Response to your World
During this Holy Week I will forgo some bodily comfort to selflessly respond to the needs of others.
In our group, we identify some situations in our surroundings needing someone to offer a helping hand. What can we do to respond to these needs?
Lord Jesus, you teach us by your example never to fear the cross that saves, but to embrace it in obedience to the will of the Father. May our hearts and yours beat as one whenever love calls us to make a sacrifice. With our eyes fixed on you, we resolve to follow you as disciples of the cross. Amen
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.