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Palm Sunday (B)

Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14:1-15:47

April 1, 2012

I have no memory. Every Palm Sunday I join the parade of parishioners, waving palm branches and singing "Hosanna" as we process into church. Each year, I am utterly devastated when the Gospel is read. The happy hosannas are drowned in the refrain "Were you there?" and I am reminded again that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

All of our readings prepare us for this solemn realization. The first reading, from the Book of Isaiah, is the third of four "servant songs" which speak of the profound commitment of the prophet known as Second Isaiah. In the preceding "songs" or oracles (Isa 42:1-4; 49: 1-7), the servant is described as having been formed in the womb for his task. He receives God's spirit. Not crying out in the street nor breaking the bruised reed, he brings justice. This servant is to be a light to the nations so that God's salvation reaches all the earth. But in this, the third oracle, the servant's words of encouragement are met with hostility. He is beaten and spit upon. In the fourth and final Servant Song (Isa 52:13-53:12), his suffering will escalate until after beatings and harsh treatment he is killed. But his sacrifice will become an atonement for the sins the people. The person known as Second Isaiah lived in Babylon during Israel's Exile in the mid-6th century B.C.E., but Christians readily see the prophesy of Christ's passion and his redemptive sacrifice in the depiction of the Suffering Servant.

The theme of suffering is also found in the second reading, where Paul quotes an early Christian hymn. Christ Jesus willingly empties himself of his divinity in order to take on human likeness, becoming obedient even unto death. The hymn shares some features with the Suffering Servant songs. In the context of Paul's Letter to the Philippians, the hymn serves to remind the believers that like Christ, they, too, are to be obedient (Phil 2:12), living as blameless children of God and shining as lights to the world (Phil 2:15).

The Gospel shatters the joyful spirit evoked by the reading of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem which opens the Palm Sunday liturgy. Scholars have called the Gospel of Mark a passion narrative with a long introduction. Indeed, Mark's focus is to demonstrate that Jesus' true identity is only understood through the Passion. He is the Son of God who is also the Suffering Son of Man.

Today's reading from Mark's Gospel begins with the anointing at Bethany by a nameless woman in the house of Simon the leper. Jesus recognizes her action as the prophetic anointing of his body for burial. It will end with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus observing where Jesus' crucified body is laid. Between anointing and burial, Jesus is betrayed by Judas Iscariot, arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, denied by Peter, condemned by the Sanhedrin, sentenced by Pilate and crucified on Golgotha. He is spit upon, struck, mocked, stripped and drugged. The horror of the Suffering Servant is visited upon the Marcan Jesus. The passage concludes with the silence of the sealed tomb. But the believer knows that's not the end of the story.

By Laurie Brink, O.P., Associate Professor of New Testament Studies

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