The other protagonists in the Passion narrative

By 26 March, 2021Gospel, To read

by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.

Europe, March 28, 2021. | Passion (Palm) Sunday.

Book of Isaiah 50: 4-7; Letter to the Philippians 2: 6-11; Saint Mark 14: 1-72.15,1-47.

Every detail, every gesture of Jesus is important. He always wants to tell us something that those who were with Him could understand and that we must also strive to understand. Nothing in the written Gospel is useless or superfluous.

Certainly we must look to Jesus as the only model to follow, but we must also pay attention to the attitude and reactions of the other characters… because they are our attitudes and reactions as well.

Neither the guests at Simon the leper’s table nor the woman who poured the perfume on Christ’s head could have imagined what was happening, the role that had fallen to that woman in the history of salvation: nothing less than preparing Jesus for his immolation and resurrection.

For many of the guests, the presence of that woman was simply an annoying inconvenience. For many of us, it may be just another sign of Jesus’ mercy, of his welcoming of sinners. But Jesus reveals to us the deeper reality: She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.

Are we aware of what the presence of a person, any person, in our lives means? Can we imagine what our role is in the salvation of the person who crosses our path? Not always. We have some pleasant memories, encounters that we consider providential, also some people thank us for the good that we have been able to do for them. But we have no idea of the deeper value of our actions and gestures.  

Any act that we perform with the intention that it be in the name of Christ is not only a testimony, but also has a prophetic value: it prepares our neighbor to take a step closer to God. This is what prophecy announces and confirms in an intuitive, simple way, without reasoning. And we almost always do it without realizing it, like the woman who approaches Jesus in today’s Gospel. It is a foresight of our destiny, sometimes wrapped in an announcement of external events.  Even if Christ accurately predicted the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (Mt 24: 2), as dramatic and painful as that fact is, even more important is its significance for the spiritual and apostolic life of the disciples. Immediately Jesus says to them:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Mt 24:14).

Yes; more or less consciously, with more or less intention, with little or much faith, we are all part of the divine plan of salvation. Even the anonymous man who appears in today’s Gospel text, “carrying a jar of water”. His presence served the disciples to prepare Jesus’ celebration of the Passover.

A sister in our community was telling me how she was called to live her vocation, many years ago.

Along with five other young women, she was preparing to spend some time as a lay missionary in a jungle area of Latin America. In the weeks prior to her departure, she heard an Idente missionary sister speak passionately about Jesus, and this made a particular impression on her, which she could not explain. A few days before her trip, in the last meeting, her companions unanimously said that “they were not prepared for this experience”, which led her to see clearly her Idente vocation. Without even realizing it, those five young women, together with the sister who was already a missionary, showed her with singular clarity the path of her vocation.

This is a moving lesson that cannot escape us today in the midst of the chilling account of Jesus’ suffering: Yes, he died for you and for me, but at the same time he gives us the opportunity to help him, to contribute to the salvation and fullness of life of people who are near and tangible, whether they love us or despise us. United with Him, we are prophets.

Mark’s Gospel mentions an unidentified young man who, as the soldiers took hold of him, he left his linen cloth in their hands and fled away naked. For some good reason, the figure of this young man only appears in the Gospel of Mark, and then only anonymously. Both details lead many scholars to think that it was Mark himself, who took an earlier account of the Passion, where his name was not cited to avoid possible persecution.

This scene is not precisely comical. It reflects how the first disciples, who had left everything to follow Christ, at a given moment abandon him. They realized that the angry crowd and the Roman soldiers were the instruments that envy and jealousy of the wicked had chosen to take their lives.

The fear of losing life (in many ways) and fame leads us (also in many ways) to abandon Jesus. This may be more subtle than it appears. It is not a direct confrontation with Him, nor with His spirit. It is -metaphorically- running away, escaping, not wanting to reflect. It is an active indifference, because I know I have NO reason or excuses. I simply escape, rather than hide, like Adam and Eve, I imitate the young man who was in Gethsemane and flee from God’s gaze, and so I am left without reasons, without clothes… without direction.

It is perhaps in these moments when last Sunday’s Gospel can be applied to us: Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed (Jn 3:20).

It is about those moments when we do not want to listen to the prophetic voice that surrounds us, especially in the pain and limitations of others, and our thought and desire is only one: That no one, divine or human, now enters my life. But this is so opposite to our nature that, sooner or later, we will feel the bitterness of having lost the opportunity to have lived really, authentically, although God forgives us and will certainly grant us new chances. 

Another very different case is that of Judas Iscariot. He had spent more time at Jesus’ side and had a position of trust in the community and an undoubted sensitivity and capacity for economic affairs. Much has been written to try to explain the betrayal of this disciple, but perhaps it can be summarized in a form of ambition, from whose multiple manifestations no one is immune.

The Gospel itself gives us a clue to understand the slippery path of our attachments and addictions, which are increasingly becoming manifest. Judas had been hiding small betrayals for a long time. Let us recall the moment when a woman poured an expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet: One of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.(Jn 12: 4).

As addicts progress into their addiction to derive sufficient gratification they must constantly seek more and more of their drug of choice. But, although you and I do not deserve the name of “addicts”, something similar happens with our attachments to certain activities or ways of doing things (more than the attachment to an object). The worst thing about our attachments is that our ego-driven achievements do considerable damage to others and our vision of God’s plans for us.

It has been said that “you never get enough of what you don’t really want.” If we are addicted or attached to something, the nature of our attachment or addiction is no longer “something to keep on living”, but “something I live for”.

Something like that must have been the total disorientation that led Judas to suicide and, for any of us, the fatal fulfillment of what Christ warned: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

At the climax of the Passion, according to St. Mark’s narrative, the figure of the Roman centurion, responsible for security at Golgotha, appears. What Jesus’ miracles, preaching, or moving gestures of mercy did not seem to achieve, the supreme innocence and meekness of one who only broke his silence to ask God the Father to forgive his executioners did. The centurion did not say “This man was the king of the Jews”, but Truly this man was the Son of God.

It was a time to listen and understand who Christ was. Not simply someone who speaks better than others, heals the sick and raises the dead. He is the Son of God because, as the Second Reading tells us, he made himself a slave for all in total obedience to his Father, our Father.

God’s presence in our lives does not go unnoticed by anyone if we truly keep silent to the demands of the world, the devil and the flesh. Our small acts of generosity, sometimes our unexpected and inspired silence, like that of Jesus when he was attacked and killed, become powerfully expressive, unmistakable signs that He is with us.

Finally, let us look at Peter, the apostle gripped by fear. At this moment we see incarnated in him all the Beatitudes: he went and felt poor in spirit, he wept bitterly, he was transfigured into a new person, humble and meek, although he had used violence with words and with the sword. And Peter’s total devotion to Jesus Christ finally came and was demonstrated with his death for his Lord several years later.

It is important that we contemplate this sad episode in Peter’s life so that we recognize how a person who has the same fears as we do can open himself to God’s love – as he did – and surrender himself completely to God’s will. The good news is that, like with Peter, Jesus is waiting there with His open arms of love, wanting to restore full fellowship when we deny Him.

During the building of the Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay, construction fell badly behind schedule because several workers had accidentally fallen from the scaffolding to their deaths. Engineers and administrators could find no solution to the costly delays. Finally, someone suggested a gigantic net be hung under the bridge to catch any who fell. Finally in spite of the enormous cost, the engineers opted for the net. After it was installed, progress was hardly interrupted. A worker or two fell into the net but were saved. Ultimately, all the time lost to fear was regained by replacing fear with faith in the net.

On this Palm Sunday we have a precious opportunity to contemplate, in the characters who were close to Christ, what happens to us when we look at him face to face. There is something of Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea, the centurion, Peter…in each one of us. And let us not forget the exemplary perseverance of Mary Magdalene, of Salome and of the many women who, precisely in moments of impotence, continued to look at Christ, full of hope, after having served him during his mission.

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