Sunday reflection: Mark 15:1–39

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 15:1–39:

As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused him of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accuse you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested. A man called Barabbas was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion. The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed. Pilate answered, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what do you want me to do with the man you call the king of the Jews?” They shouted again, “Crucify him.” Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.

The soldiers led him away inside the palace, that is, the praetorium, and assembled the whole cohort. They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. They began to salute him with, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and kept striking his head with a reed and spitting upon him. They knelt before him in homage. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him out to crucify him.

They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.

They brought him to the place of Golgotha —which is translated Place of the Skull—. They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it. Then they crucified him and divided his garments by casting lots for them to see what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” With him they crucified two revolutionaries, one on his right and one on his left. Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross.” Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes, mocked him among themselves and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.

At noon darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look, he is calling Elijah.” One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink saying, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.”

Here all kneel and pause for a short time.

Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

For today’s reflection, I chose the shorter passage that might be used in some churches today, but most will likely hear the longer choice — Mark 14:1-15:47. In our parish, we will have four lectors to handle the readings today, and I will be one of them, although not one of the two who will proclaim the Gospel. I will have the honor of proclaiming St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the passage that provides the explanation for what takes place in Mark:

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The brevity of this passage contrasts with the length of the passion narrative that we will hear for our Palm Sunday of the Passion. It also shows how simple the lesson from the Passion was, and how so many missed it — very much akin to missing the forest for the trees.

When Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd, he announced Ecce homo! “Behold, the man!” When the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to both Pilate and Herod Antipas, they did the equivalent, refusing to open their eyes to His divinity and his mission. The Twelve saw him as their king, but still didn’t quite grasp what that meant, and scatter in despair at his downfall as a man.

And this was easy to do, because Jesus had a fully human nature as well as a fully divine nature. He came to the world as a man, working as a laborer, condescending to share our burdens and woes in everything but sin. He did this so that we could relate to Him as a man, and to bring our human sufferings to Him as part of His sacrifice. Through that process, we all become priests and penitents at the same time, and we can strive to free ourselves of the burden of sin.

However, the human nature of Jesus confounded most of those in His time. Behold the man, Pilate tells the crowd, and our sinful natures tell us the same thing. Don’t behold the divine, because to do that would lead us away from sin and bring us closer to the end to which we aspire: a fully human life and a fully divine life with the Lord. If we only behold the man, we can dismiss Jesus as a philosopher rather than Messiah, a misunderstood soul who simply fell afoul of power politics in a time where that game had deadly consequences.

On the other hand, if we only behold the divine, then we lose sight of the salvation that the Incarnation offers. Jesus died for our sins, once and for all, so that we might have eternal life. But we still need to remember that the eternal life we are offered will bring us as perfected humans into the Trinitarian love of God. His Incarnation underscores the sacred nature of humanity in God’s plan. Jesus became the new Adam, who had that opportunity but refused to trust and obey God, and left that divine caritas for his own selfish ambitions. Jesus not only died for our sins for our salvation, but showed us the nature of that salvation in His Resurrection. Our destiny in Christ will be a true resurrection for ourselves as well — incorruptible when we put away sin and open our hearts to the Holy Spirit.

The world calls us to say Ecce homo about ourselves and about our neighbors as well. Too often, we close our hearts to others, forgetting that they too have been creating by God and are precious to Him, and instead focusing only on the value and burden they place on us. Christ Himself warned about this, saying that caritas of neighbor — self-sacrificial love for others — had to go beyond one’s friends and family. As Jesus taught, even the tax collectors and Gentiles of the time did that much. But to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” one must see others as something other than just the sum of their material and intellectual worth in this world. We have to recognize the sacramental humanity in each person at every stage of life, even when that means sacrificing in some way, and maybe especially when that’s the case.

Ecce homo is what the world wants of us, the voice of Pilate just before washing his hands in utter contempt. We must say Ecce homo, ecce salvator. Jesus died for us all, as we are all in sin and needed His intervention. We must behold both in Jesus Christ to begin to grasp His mission. And we must grasp the divine spark, the image of God, in all of our fellow human beings, no matter how flawed they may be, because it is that same spark that allows us to seek salvation in Christ and lead others to it.

The front page image is Antonio Ciseri’s “Ecce Homo” (Behold the man), from 1871.