25 March 2018
The passage from Isaiah (50: 4-7), clearly reads as though it is from a prophet. He is one who knows what God wants to say to the people, and even though his words may be unwelcomed by those he addresses, he nevertheless puts up with the opposition of the crowd and follows his calling to listen to the voice of God and deliver the message to the people; their reaction may well bring him opposition, verbal or even physical. This passage, like a considerable amount of the Bible (Old Testament) would be quite familiar to the Jews at the time of Christ and in the early church. It is noticeable, for example, that in the Gospel written by Mark (probably the earliest Gospel) there are echoes and sometimes references to and quotations from his Scriptures. This Old Testament reading may well have been in mind as he wrote about the difficulties encountered by Christ in the account of the passion which we hear in the Gospel today.
In the second reading (Philippians 2: 6-11) Paul quotes from an early hymn about Christ. It forcefully and poetically attempts to express the ‘unbelievable condescension’ of God becoming human – one of us. It uses the Greek word for “to empty” (kenoein) which appears only five times in the New Testament and only here of God, of His act in Christ in person emptying Himself – from His divine nature – into our humanity becoming the man Jesus Christ This is a selflessness that we would emulate if we were utterly devoted to becoming saints. The adjective ‘kenotic’ and the noun ‘kenosis’ have now entered the English language and they are used to try and express this ‘emptying’ of Christ without denying His Divinity as well as being used about the implications of this for Christian living and spirituality. The poem we have in Philippians goes on to tell of the elevation that balances this, after Christ has undergone death – the details of which we hear in the passion account in the long Gospel reading that follows.
The passion in Mark’s Gospel came to be written somewhat like this. After His earthly life, those who were ‘followers of the Way’ (later called Christians), acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, Son of God and Saviour. This belief arose from knowing His unique personality before and after His crucifixion, and from the impact He made upon their lives. But they had to find ways to put it into narrative for later generations using what they had experienced or heard of, namely all the significant events that led up to His departure from our world to be present in it in a new way. We have no record of precisely how they did this over the period of the first two decades or so. But then Mark incorporated their traditions, some oral and some already put into writing, into his gospel. So this narrative of the Good News culminates with the last three chapters of Mark’s gospel of which we read the first two today (chapters 14 and 15). Mark tries to make sense of the fact that Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy by the religious leaders and was executed as a criminal by the secular power for claiming to be a king; both authorities were worried about the reaction of the crowd and the disturbance of the status quo; and Mark also wants to admit how Jesus’ friends betrayed, denied and abandoned Him – save for a few faithful women; and how some taunted him, but a Roman centurion seemed to recognise him as son of God. We should not read it as an historical account so much as a powerful message to us about the enormous love of God for us and the selfishness, weakness and sinfulness of ourselves – a powerful homily!