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Palm Sunday - Spectators or Participants?

Sunday, April 05, 2009
Readings: Mark 11:1-10 (Blessing of Palms); Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 21; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47 (Mass)

At the beginning of Lent it seems that there are things we can do, fasting, praying and almsgiving, practical works of asceticism and charity, in order to participate in what the Lenten season is about. A few weeks in, though, the liturgy begins to direct our focus away from ourselves and on to Christ, in particular by relating him to many Old Testament figures - Jonah, Jeremiah, Susanna, Moses - prophets or innocent sufferers whose experience and mission anticipate those of Jesus. By the time we get to Holy Week it can seem that all that is asked of us is to be spectators, no longer participants, onlookers amazed at the glory that is being unveiled.

And yet it seems impossible to remain purely a spectator. Some of the less central figures in Mark's account of the passion show this in different ways. The woman whose love leads her to anoint Jesus scandalises by her extravagance and yet is praised by Jesus for her way of participating in his paschal mystery. Her symbolic action, he says, will be told in remembrance of her wherever the gospel is preached. A bystander in Gethsemane is moved to cut off the ear of the high priest's servant, thinking that perhaps this is a way to be helpful. His action is only implicitly rejected by Jesus (explicitly so in Matthew's and Luke's accounts). Is this bystander the young man who then runs away naked (Mark 14:52)? This is a strange verse, almost surreal, perhaps intended to make us think of Amos 2:16, 'those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked on that day, says the Lord'.

Simon of Cyrene is forced to participate, helping Jesus to carry the cross. He becomes a living parable, then, of the teaching of Jesus that it is only those who take up the cross and follow him who can be his disciples. Mark alone mentions Simon's sons Alexander and Rufus, a personal detail perhaps to help his readers identify a family known to them, who could no longer be counted simply as bystanders and onlookers to the passion of Christ but had become sharers in it. The centurion too seems to have something forced from him as he witnesses the death of Jesus, a sudden expression of faith that echoes the voice of the Father at the baptism and the transfiguration: 'truly this man was the Son of God' (Mark 15:39).

We may feel that in Holy Week we are invited to be bystanders and spectators only but it is impossible to remain neutral about these events. It is impossible to remain indifferent about what was done to this man (if only to include Him with all the many millions of innocent people whose suffering cries out for justice). If we hang around and watch this drama unfold and allow it to touch our humanity we will find ourselves drawn to get involved as His love evokes our love and His obedience evokes our faith.


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