We begin Mass today with a Gospel reading. It does us good to sit with this for a moment, because it can be overshadowed by the reading of the Passion later on.
We see Jesus riding into Jerusalem, with all the people shouting and waving and putting their cloaks down and making sure that the coming king’s feet don’t touch the dusty ground. He rides on the foal of a donkey: this is not a fine warhorse, this is not a chariot. He takes the lowliest of animals, a beast of burden, the child of a beast of burden and mounts this beast as his ride. Far greater than the finest of thoroughbred chargers, this symbol of poverty, of service, of burden carries the Christ into his city. The people are unperturbed by his show of humility and cry on,
Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father, David. Hosanna in the highest Heavens!
In the first reading, Isaiah’s words ring clearly for us as a foretaste of Christ’s own life. We see in the words of the prophet everything that Jesus did in his life and, in particular, in his Passion. We hear, too, a call to our own lives: when God opens our ears, we must listen, even if his call leads us down a path of suffering. Our faith seems ridiculous to many around us: we take strength from Isaiah’s words: we know we shall not be shamed.
In the psalm, this week, we are reminded of Jesus’ words from the cross. Even in his last hour, he was filled with the scripture. The psalm describes his suffering, even what the soldiers did with his clothing, and his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” rings in our ears.
St Paul reminds us that Jesus, the son of God, is divine. He came from God and returned to God. Yet, he did not cling to his equality with God: he emptied himself of this glory and loved us so perfectly that he submitted to the death of a common criminal. There were much more dignified ways to die, even more dignified ways to be executed. Crucifixion was about as bad as it could be: it was a humiliating death: slow, painful and public. “But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names.”
This week, we read the story of the Lord’s passion and death from one of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), according to the three-year cycle of readings. We will hear John’s account on Good Friday.
Mark, this year, is the most concise rendition of the four. He began his Gospel with Jesus’ baptism and concludes with the Passion. We stand as we are reminded, once more, of the completion of God’s great work of salvation. As with all stories, this one is full of human weakness. Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed, by one of his friends (how many times have we done this to him?); Peter announces that he will stand by Jesus to the very end, even into death (who was it who stayed with him to the end, though? It was not Peter). In Mark’s Gospel, we see a young follower of Jesus, not mentioned in any of the other renditions, running off into the night naked. Some scholars think that this boy may be Mark himself.
As Jesus is hanging on the cross, he quotes the psalm we read earlier, and yields his soul to the Father.
Seeing this, the centurion, a gentile, recognises Jesus for what he is: “Truly, this man was a son of God.” The centurion is the first person in the whole of Mark’s Gospel to recognise Jesus and to declare his identity aloud.
In the Temple, in front of the Holy of Holies, hung a huge curtain. Behind this curtain was the place where God’s presence dwelt on Earth. This curtain, the Veil of the Temple, separated the presence of God from the people. Only the High Priest was allowed through the veil, and then only one one day each year.
At the moment of his death, the curtain, the barrier separating God from his people, was torn in two, from top to bottom. From that moment, God was no longer separated from us. Soon after, he would send his Holy Spirit amongst us, and we would be his church.