The USCCB refers to this coming Sunday as “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion,” though in popular parlance the simpler “Palm Sunday” will probably remain with us for generations in everyday “parish talk.” Since the reforms of 1970 there has been considerable catechetical and liturgical effort to include the title “Passion” in the name of the feast. I have seen some curious formulations on Church calendars such as “Passion (Palm) Sunday.” This is one of those rare feasts that actually mark two different historical events; the remarkable entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, and his Passion account. The Church has seen the solemn entry of Jerusalem as the first stage of the events that would culminate with the crucifixion on Good Friday. There are actually two Gospel proclamations in the Palm Sunday liturgy: the first during the rite of the blessing of Palms, the second during the full Liturgy of the Word.
In keeping with the B Cycle, both Gospel proclamations come from St. Mark. Interestingly, the USCCB site allows for an alternate text from St. John to describe the solemn entrance into Jerusalem. For our purposes here I will stay with Mark’s account throughout. The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1989, 41:70) observes that the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem seems inspired by prophetic actions. Particularly of note is Zechariah 14, a truly remarkable episode, which describes the Mount of Olives (the starting point of Jesus’ procession) as the place where the Lord as divine warrior would fight the “great eschatological battle,” the ultimate conflict between good and evil for all time. This apocalyptic or “end of world” flavor is consistent with this Gospel throughout. The fact that all four Gospels report of an unusual popular entry into Jerusalem argues for historical confidence and a conscious gesture by Jesus to evoke consistency with the Old Testament prophetic message.
Generations of preachers throughout my lifetime have made the point—correctly—that there is a great contrast between the recorded crowds of Palm Sunday and (presumably) the same hostile crowd of Good Friday. Mark has noted earlier that Jesus was skeptical of the crowds who followed him and witnessed his works and miracles, and apparently with good reason. A recurring theme of this Gospel is the shallowness and weakness of faith of his followers, a theme that continues to the very end of this Gospel on Easter Sunday (16:8) As best we know, Mark’s is the first written account of the Passion; it formed the template for the three others to follow. This passion narrative (Mark 14:1-15:46) is the shortest and very much to the point: Jesus died alone, agonizingly, the model of the full cost of discipleship.
A great deal of what we think of as part of the Passion narrative is missing from Mark, or put another way, later evangelists elaborated considerably on Mark’s material for theological reasons. Mark’s Last Supper report emphasizes the betrayal of Judas and in the blessing of the bread and wine. Mark does quote Jesus as saying he would not drink of the cup again until he drank it anew in the coming Kingdom of God. There is no significant supper dialogue as in John’s Gospel. The prediction of Peter’s betrayal occurs on the Mount of Olives, though in 14:31 all of the disciples repeat Peter’s boast of loyalty to the death—and thus carry the shame of betrayal later.
As several commentaries note, the historical basis of Judas’s betrayal in the garden is strong—no Christian would have invented such a betrayal; Mark notes that Judas is “One of the Twelve,” a brief insertion that increases the shame factor exponentially. In 14:51 Mark alone adds the strange incident of a young man fleeing the scene naked. It has been common to identify this man as Mark himself, but recent scholarship tends to see this odd insertion as a symbol of utter and complete desertion.
The Sanhedrin trial is brief; Mark observes that the witnesses were little more than fools. It is Jesus’ own testimony, that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One, which resulted in his condemnation. St. Luke elongates the trial by involving King Herod, and John has multiple involvements with Pilate, but Mark’s account is simple and straightforward. Mark does record Pilate’s perplexity, but Pilate is much less troubled here than he appears in St. John’s account. Jesus was subjected to a standard ritual of torture and mockery at the hands of court soldiers, who evidently were used to executions of political pretenders.
The JBC is moved to comment upon the brevity of the actual crucifixion account. Jesus was offered a numbing cheap wine which he refused (“I will not drink wine again until….”). The act of crucifixion is described in one line, 15:24, which tends to obscure the detailed physical atrocity of this process for modern readers. Contemporaries of Mark, who no doubt observed birds of prey eating the corpses of crucified men and women, needed no elaboration. Both criminals crucified with him join the universal chorus of derision and hatred. Jesus speaks only once on the cross, the cry of utter abandonment that, almost scandalously, seems targeted toward his Father as well as anyone who had ever made a claim of faith in his message. It is important to remember, of course, that Catholic doctrine has long held for the full humanity of Christ; to have experienced this utter abandonment probably evoked a true human response from Jesus in his death throes.
One final point: even after Jesus’ death, his remaining followers kept their distance. Line 15:20 reports that even the “faithful women” looked on from a distance. In the increasing darkness of dusk, Joseph of Arimathea finally comes to Pilate for the humanitarian gesture, so late in the day that preparation of the body for interment is not possible. Clearly the introduction of Mark’s Passion into the liturgical cycle brings home to us the full horror of a word we use somewhat routinely, crucifixion.