There is no mass on Holy Saturday, which means today’s readings will actually be heard tonight at the Easter Vigil. Because this is the highest of Christian holy feasts, there are a lot of readings. We start with the first creation account in Genesis (Genesis 1:1-2:2), where we hear that absolutely everything that is only is because it was created by God. Then follows the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18), where God tests the faith of Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son. The third reading is from Exodus (Exodus 14:15-15:1), where Moses parts the sea, and God sends a fiery cloud to keep the Egyptians at bay until the Israelites were able to safely cross. The next two readings are from Isaiah (Isaiah 54:5-14 & Isaiah 55:1-11), which seem as if a love song from God to men, promising his graces to us, if only we will remain faithful. The sixth reading is from Baruch is a call to conversion (Baruch 3:9-15, 32-38, 4:1-4), where we hear how we have “forsaken the fountain of wisdom,” and we are urged to “Turn, O Jacob, and receive her: walk by her light toward splendor.”
The seventh reading, from Ezekiel 36:16-28, is quite beautiful. Israel is God’s chosen people, and therefore they are the light to the nations, the emissary which gives other nations an idea of who God is. But they have profaned the name of God, by filling their lives with idols and pagan rituals. God tells Ezekiel that He will restore holiness to Israel, not for their sake, but for the sake of His name. “I will prove the holiness of my great name, profaned among the nations, in whose midst you have profaned it. Thus the nations shall know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when in their sight I prove my holiness through you.” What follows here is God explaining how He will restore Israel to holiness. He “will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities” (sounds a lot like baptism, eh?). He “will put my spirit within you” (indwelling of the Holy Spirit, anyone?). It’s a wonderful reading, and I strongly recommend you give it a read.
Eighth we have Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 6:3-11), where Paul tells us that it is by our baptism that we die with Christ. We die to our sins, so that we might be raised up just as Jesus was raised. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Finally we have the Gospel reading: the empty tomb narrative according to Mark (Mark 16:1-7). Similar to Matthew’s account of the same, the man they find in the tomb (who is not Jesus) tells them to go to Galilee, for their they will find Jesus. Why to Galilee? Because Galilee was the first place they encountered Christ, and thus they are being called to renew their response to the call that Christ first gave them: “Follow me.” Similarly, we as Christians all responded to that same call at some point in our lives, and we are thus called to return in our minds and in our hearts to that moment so that we might renew our response to Christ. This same idea or returning to our own Personal Galilee came up last Easter, and I wrote a more thorough post on it then. For now, I will leave you to ponder the readings for yourself, as we patiently await the resurrection of our Lord.
I am not posting the entire passage for today, as it is very long. On Good Friday, we hear the Passion of the Lord according to John. There is much here, but there are a few things which always make me stop and think. Firstly is one which we have already seen, this past weekend. We know that Caiaphas devised the plot to kill Jesus because he was afraid of the fury the Romans would unleash if they suspected Jesus to be leading a rebellion. Here we see John reiterating what Mark told us about Pilate’s fear. Pilate is afraid of the crowd. He does not want a riot on his hands—perhaps he is not sure if he has enough men to subdue this crowd if he needed to. He tries to pawn Jesus off on the crowd and let them deal with him, but the crowd is adamant that Jesus be killed by Pilate. Because of his fear, Pilate agrees. We see here how fear seems to be the driving force behind opposition to God. More specifically, fear of other men, fear that if you do the right thing, you might be harmed. Pilate knows the right thing to do is to let Jesus live. Caiaphas knows this as well, as we saw how he justified his plan as a “for the greater good” scenario. But because they love themselves more than they love God, they also fear harm to themselves more than anything. It was love of self which we see in Pilate and Caiaphas, and that is what got Jesus killed.
The second thing which always brings me pause is the cry of the crowd, “We have no king but Caesar!” Jesus is their king. John makes sure to point out the irony of the inscription “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” which was placed above Jesus’ head. The Jews wanted it altered to say “I am the King of the Jews,” to indicate this is just something Jesus claimed and not actually true. Pilate left it as is, and ended up being accidentally correct. Jesus is the king of all nations, the prince who unites the divided kingdoms and rules over all. The Jews insist that this is merely something Jesus claims, and why? Because they want nothing to do with God’s leadership. The Romans have given them power in the land of Israel. The Romans gave the priests near absolute control over Israel, so long as they served Rome. This is why the Jews cry out that their true king is Caesar. They love their power, and their power comes from Caesar. To accept the rule of God would be to lose that power.
The third thing, and the last I will comment on here, is Peter. Peter does not get glowing reviews for his upstanding behavior in this one. The passage begins with Peter immediately turning to violence, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus rebukes him, and allows himself to be arrested. The next bit is particularly interesting, because of the imagery that John uses. Jesus is taken through the gate into the courtyard. One of the disciples follows him, while Peter does not. Peter remains outside. Remember that earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus told us that he is the gate. (John 10:1-10) To follow Jesus, to enter that gate, is to be saved. Peter’s fear overcomes him, and he remains outside the gate. It is only after Peter refuses to enter the gate that he utters his first denial of Christ. After a quick cutover to Jesus, we’re back with Peter, huddled in front of a fire, terrified, and trying not to be noticed. This is when he denies Christ two more times, and the cock crows.
Notice Peter’s denial only comes after he has refused to enter the gate. The offer was made—he had the option to enter the gate and follow Christ. He refused because he was overcome by fear and doubt. It was his fear that caused him to deny Christ three times. Just like Caiaphas and Pilate, Peter here is driven by his fear. The good news for Peter is that he will receive forgiveness from the risen Christ. But that one is not in our reading yet, so I will leave that for another day.
John 13:1-15 (NRSVCE)
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
It’s Holy Thursday, which means it’s the day we practice the washing of the feet. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and telling them “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter certainly didn’t understand, as he refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. It’s not until Jesus tells him “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” that Peter finally agrees. He has a spectacular change of mind, in fact, as he goes from “You will never wash my feet” to “Wash all of me!” (paraphrasing that second one a bit) The disciples aren’t really sure why it is so important for them to allow Jesus to wash their feet. It isn’t until later that they realize this simple act of foot washing really encapsulates everything about what our walk with Christ is supposed to be.
Christ is our master, our teacher, our Lord. But Christ has come to serve, in a way that no mere man ever could. He has come to do the work that man can’t do for himself. He has come to save us. But that means allowing him to help us. He holds out his hand, ready to lift us up, if only we will ask—if only we will reach out and grab onto him. That is what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples here. Foot washing is the job of a low servant. Everyone wore sandals everywhere they went, and they lived in a place full of sand. Their feet were gross, and frequently had to be washed. They didn’t have the comforts of breathable-fabric socks with thick-soled shoes and arch support. They just had buckets of water to wash the filth off their feet when they came inside. This is not something a master does, it is something the servant does for his master. Jesus inverts this expectation precisely to make the point that his job, as a teacher, is to serve. And just as he does it, so too should we. We are to “wash one another’s feet,” which we do literally today. But also figuratively, in that we are meant to serve our fellowmen, and in that way we imitate Christ.
There’s one other thing I think is interesting from this passage. We see one mention of Judas. Jesus says that the disciples are entirely clean, because he has washed their feet. Then he pauses and says “though not all of you.” John mentions that Jesus was referring here to Judas, the one Jesus knew would betray him. But think of the implication there for a minute. Why would Jesus clarify like that? Because he washed Judas’ feet! Jesus knew what was going to happen. He knew “the devil had already put into the heart of Judas to betray him.” But he still washed Judas’ feet! More than anything else in this story, I think this speaks the loudest. Jesus serves us, reaches out his loving hand to us, even if he knows we will turn our backs on him! He humbles himself below the worst of sinners (remember how Jesus said yesterday that it would be better if Judas had never been born), because he loves us that much. There truly can be nothing more comforting than realizing the lengths to which Jesus will go for our sake, even if we despise him!
Matthew 26:14-25 (NRSVCE)
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
“Surely not I, Lord?” Notice the uncertainty behind these words. All of the disciples repeat these words. When Jesus says “It would have been better for that one not to have been born,” even Judas has the realization: “Surely not I?” The disciples love Jesus. Even Judas loved Jesus, at least at one time. None of them thought themselves capable of something so terrible that it would have been better if they had never been born! And yet here Jesus is telling them plainly that one of them will betray him.
I can’t help but think here about our own walk with Christ. We all do our best to follow him, we all do our best to love him with all we are. But when Jesus tells us that one of us will turn on him, will I be sure enough in my faith and my love for Christ that we might have assurance he is not speaking to me? Or, like the disciples, will I realize that I do not love Jesus as much as I ought? Will I instead utter a worried “Surely not I, Lord?” Even Peter, the rock upon which the Church was built, was not strong enough in his faith to cling to Christ, when it came down to it. He denied him not once, not twice, but three times. How must Peter have felt, having just had his faith shaken when he thought for a moment he might be the one to betray Jesus, and now having denied that he ever knew Christ? He must have recalled his “Surely not I, Lord?” in that moment.
It's the last full day of Lent today. Tomorrow is a shortened day, as the Paschal Triduum begins tomorrow evening, at the beginning of the new liturgical day. We have spent the last forty-odd days faithfully adhering to our Lenten fasts, focusing on improving our relationship with Christ. And like a bucket of hammers, we are today hit with this realization that we may not be as faithful as we thought. What if I am one who will betray Jesus? What if I don’t love Jesus as much as I convince myself I do? We go into Good Friday with this at the forefront of our minds: we are the ones who killed Jesus. Ordinary people, scared, unsure of ourselves, unsure of anything, we turned our backs on God. If we hadn’t, the crucifixion would never have happened.
All of Lent is a time for serious spiritual reflection, for contemplating the state of our souls so that we might strengthen our faith and our love for God. But now is that time more than ever, as we approach the remembrance of the crucifixion. Jesus was betrayed by those he loved, he was killed by those he loved. “Surely not I, Lord?”
John 13:21-33, 36-38 (NRSVCE)
After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate how silly this scene is? Jesus tells the disciples that someone is about to betray him. Which one? “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread.” He then hands the bread to Judas, and Judas leaves. And instead of thinking “Huh, Jesus said whoever he gave the bread to was going to betray him. And he gave the bread to Judas! Judas is going to betray Jesus!” the disciples instead think “Judas must be going shopping.”
But anyway, one thing which sticks out for me in this passage is that second paragraph. Jesus says “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him,” followed by the slightly less clear “If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.” Remember how we have read this Lent about how it is by Jesus’ obedience to the Father that the debt of honor is satisfied, and it is by the satisfaction of that debt that we are saved from death—from punishment. Now we see here Jesus speaking about being glorified. The Father is in him, and the Son in the Father. It is a mutual indwelling (remember again how we read about this perichoresis in the Trinity, in which each Person surrounds and contains the others). Jesus is fulfilling the will of the Father, and for that the Son is glorified. But the Son doing the Father’s will gives glory to the Father. Thus both are glorified. But because the Son also indwells in the Father, when the Father receives glory, He glorifies the Son who dwells within Him. Thus we see this beautiful circle of mutual glorification happening, and all of this is happening because the Father and the Son love each other. It is in this perfect love between Father and Son that we see the Holy Spirit. This is why we sometimes refer to perichoresis instead as the “divine dance of love”, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give fully of themselves to one another, in an eternal flow of giving and receiving.
Then Jesus says something which is most interesting. He says to Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” It’s easy to skip this bit and move right on to Jesus foretelling Peter’s threefold denial. But there’s something important here. Jesus is returning to the Father. He is glorified, and the Father in him, and He in the Father. He is going to that divine dance of love, and he says that Peter will follow afterward. Peter here is not merely “Peter the man,” of course. Peter, as the rock upon which the Church is built, is representative of the Church. It is the Church which follows after Christ, and enters into that dance of love with the Holy Trinity! Not as God, surely, but glorified to a far greater participation than we could ever possibly hope for! The Church, who is forgiven for its failings (as Peter was forgiven for his threefold denial with his threefold affirmation later in John’s Gospel) is following Jesus to the Father. We are following so that we may spend eternity in that dance of love with God.
John 12:1-11 (NRSVCE)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Jesus visits Lazarus, where Martha serves the dinner, and Mary anoints his feet with expensive perfume. This seems familiar, doesn’t it? There is another story in Luke where we have Martha doing all the work to serve Jesus, while Mary sat at his feet and listened to his words. (Luke 10:38-42) In that story, Martha gets aggravated that Mary has not helped at all. Jesus tells her “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” We see a similar thing happening here. Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet, and this time Judas gets upset. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas said this out of greed—he wanted to steal the money—but the similarity here is striking. Jesus once again says that Mary is doing the right thing. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The one thing that jumps out at us immediately here is that Jesus is clearly aware that he is soon going to die. This is a farewell gathering, even if his followers do not yet realize it. Judas is still distracted by filling his pockets, and Martha is busy worrying about the dinner. Only Mary seems to realize what is happening. She uses the perfume that was meant for Jesus’ burial, because she recognizes that Jesus is soon to die. But more than this, I find the connection with Luke’s passage most intriguing. In both stories, Mary is totally focused on Jesus. She doesn’t give it even a second thought—her first and only priority is to cling to Jesus, to heed his every word and to serve him in whatever way she can. For this, she received contempt from those around her. Her own sister thought her selfish and careless. Judas thought her wasteful and imprudent, and from Matthew’s account of this story, it seems that the other disciples agreed with Judas, where they say “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:8-9) There is a lesson here, and perhaps that lesson is that if we love and serve Christ as we ought, those around us will think us mad, or even despise us.
Though it is chiefly a lesson of priorities. Do we truly put Christ first in our lives? Helping the poor is a good thing to do, and we ought to do it as often as we can. Playing host to guests is also a good thing to do. But do we busy ourselves so much with distractions that we don’t leave room for Christ, as Martha did? Do we focus too much on what we stand to gain from the things we do, as Judas did? Do we focus so much on giving away that which we have, even to the point that we think it sinful if we retain anything? I might call it a “scrupulous prodigality,” but I hate that I can’t think of a less silly term for it.
The lesson of these stories is that we ought to emulate Mary. We ought to focus our attention on Christ, and use those things we have to honor God, however that may be. If that means giving some of what we have away to the poor, great! But it doesn’t necessarily mean that, as Jesus shows us here. We can honor God without becoming neurotic about remaining destitute ourselves.
Mark 15:1-39 (NRSVCE)
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy 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 spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide 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.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
We have a very long Gospel reading today, because today is Palm Sunday! Also known as Passion Sunday! There are actually two options in the lectionary for today’s Gospel reading. Both are Mark’s Passion narrative, but the one I have here is the shorter version (the longer version goes through the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal). There is a lot to digest in this reading, so to keep things easy I will focus on only a few things.
In yesterday’s reading, we saw how Caiaphas and the high priests wanted Jesus killed because they were afraid of what the Romans would do. It was fear which drove their actions. Here, we see the same from Pilate. Pilate has been charged with maintaining order in Israel, and he finds himself presented with a crowd which has been whipped into a frenzy by the Jewish priests. They all want Jesus dead. Pilate doesn’t have cause to kill Jesus, and certainly not to crucify him (a sentence typically reserved for enemies of Rome). But the crowd is adamant. If Pilate does not do as they wish, he risks a riot and the safety of not only himself, but his soldiers. Now Pilate is the one who is afraid. “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” It is fear that turns people against Jesus. Sin is what drives that fear. Remember how Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden after they ate the fruit. Their sin had caused them to be afraid—specifically, afraid of judgment. In our sin, we retreat from God, we run away at the mention of His name because God exposes our sin. He exposes the truth. Jesus was killed because he spoke the truth, and that made people fear him.
Then there is the twist of irony which Mark makes sure we do not miss. The soldiers cover Jesus in a purple cloak, the color of royalty, and place a crown of thorns on his head. As they beat him, they salute and pay homage, mocking him for being “King of the Jews.” They placed this inscription above his head on the cross, and continued to mock. The Jews also mocked him. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” The irony here is that the Jews are indeed looking upon their King. The soldiers are as well. Remember from yesterday that Jesus is the one who unites the divided kingdoms. He truly is the King of both Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish priests and the Gentile soldiers are paying him homage in an attempt to mock him, when in fact they are paying homage to the true King.
This is finally recognized by one of the Gentile soldiers. Jesus dies, and the temple curtain is torn in two (the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies, where God dwelt in the temple, from the outside world). It is a Gentile who first realizes “Truly this man was God’s Son!” Mark here is emphasizing that the Kingdom of God does not lie only with the Jews. It is meant for all people. Christ has come to unite the nations, to unite the people of God into one body, under his headship. Jews and Gentiles alike feared him for this, for this would mean losing their power and authority, and it would mean their sin would be exposed for what it is. Only after crucifixion does this soldier realize what they have just done, though the Jews remain blind to it.
There is much more which can be said about today’s reading. Mark’s Gospel is far more rich than I think it often gets credit for. But this reflection has already exceeded the limit I have been trying to keep myself to, so I will leave it here. Give the Passion narrative from Mark a few read-throughs. Read it once, then read it again. You will start to see the depth and beauty of Mark’s narrative come alive.
John 11:45-56 (NRSVCE)
Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead. This has gained him many followers, which makes Jesus a much bigger threat to the safety of Israel. Not because Jesus intends a revolt or anything, but because the Romans will see it that way. They will see a man amassing a huge number of followers, who is being called “King,” and who is directly opposing the Jewish priests (who are only allowed to be in power because they are cooperating with the Romans). Crowds like this are dangerous, and if Rome suspects a threat, they will come down on Jerusalem with their legions and raise it to the ground. This is the fear of the priests. They need to find a way to deal with Jesus to stave off the fire and fury of Rome.
Caiaphas, the high priest, sees a simple solution to the problem. Kill Jesus, and his followers will disperse. They will go home, and all will be as it was. Rome will just see another lowly rabble-rouser who was dealt with, and everything will be fine. It is not good to kill an innocent man, but “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” Caiaphas knows Jesus has done no wrong, and means no harm. He knows Jesus does not deserve to die. But he is willing to kill Jesus anyway, because he fears Rome more than he fears God.
After Caiaphas announces his plan, we’re told that this was actually unknowingly prophetic. “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” This is John referencing what is our first reading for today, where Ezekiel prophesies that God will “make them one nation upon the land, in the mountains of Israel, and there shall be one prince for them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.” (Ezekiel 37:22) John is telling us that Jesus is that one prince who will unite the two divided kingdoms. God has made his dwelling place among the people of God, just as Ezekiel foretold, and this is new, everlasting covenant of peace. (Ezekiel 37:26-28)
But who are these two kingdoms which are divided, but will be united by this prince? To a Jewish reader, it seems only logical that Ezekiel was talking about the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel, the Jews and the Samaritans. But Jesus has made clear that his people encompass much more than merely the Jews. The people of God, under Jesus, will include all peoples. Paul says in Galations, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galations 3:28) The two divided kingdoms that Jesus will unite, by his salvific act on the cross, are Jews and Gentiles. Jesus’ Church extends to all nations, and his offer of salvation to all peoples. Out of fear, we had him killed. But out of love, he comes as the Prince of Peace, establishing the new, everlasting covenant with the world.
John 10:31-42 (NRSVCE)
The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled--can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there. Many came to him, and they were saying, “John performed no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” And many believed in him there.
Yesterday we saw the Jews ready to stone Jesus for calling himself “I am,” for claiming to be God. Jesus managed to slip away, but now we see that they have caught up with him. Once again, they pick up stones to throw at Jesus for his blasphemy. Jesus tells them that they are ignoring the clear truth in front of their eyes. They do not believe Jesus, because their hearts and minds are closed to him. But they can see the works that Jesus is doing, and they should at the very least believe in the works. Jesus performed miracle after miracle, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, driving out demons, turning water into wine, and so much more. Yet his accusers refused to consider that Jesus might be who he says he is. Jesus gives them another chance here, by simply saying “Look, if you don’t believe me, at least believe what I do.”
This theme of believing with and without signs is prominent in John’s Gospel. Jesus makes it clear that signs can lead one to belief. He says so here. He also says so in John 4, when he rebukes the royal official by saying “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (John 4:48) Or in John 20:29 when he says to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Jesus wants us to believe in him without the need for signs, but he is also clear that signs can bring us to belief. When he encounters those who are unable to believe, he gives them signs. He heals the royal official’s son. He shows Thomas his wounds, even letting Thomas place his hand in them. These signs brought people to belief. And yet, despite all the signs he did for the Jews, they still did not believe. Why?
The answer, I think, comes down to the state of their hearts. Thomas wanted to believe, he just couldn’t bring himself to. The royal official was desperately searching for something, anything, that would help his son. Both of these men wanted Jesus to be who he says he is, they just couldn’t bring themselves to believe it yet. That is why the signs they were given led them to belief. The Jews, on the other hand, are a different story. They cared only about their laws, their practices, their authorities. They didn’t want any part of what Jesus was doing, they didn’t for a second want Jesus to be telling the truth. They wanted to keep their old ways, their power, and their laws. If Jesus was telling the truth, all of that would be upended. If Jesus really were God, or doing the works of God, it would mean that the world as they knew it would never be the same.
Call it what you will: stubbornness, pride, even fear. It’s a feeling I think we can all sympathize with. We all want to live our lives the way we want to live them. But the fact of the matter is that we are called to love God above all things, and to love our neighbor. This means not living for ourselves, but living for God and for others. The royal official lived for his son. Thomas lived for Jesus. That’s why they were able to believe once they were given a sign. The Jews lived only for themselves, and because of that they were blind to the truth.
John 8:51-59 (NRSVCE)
Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, ‘Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’ though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” We remember here the words Moses heard come from the burning bush. Moses asks what God’s name is. He receives the response “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) And now Jesus repeats the same. So what does it mean when God says to us “I am”?
Perhaps the easiest approach to this would be to consider the question “What are you?” If I were to say this to you, you would respond “I am a human.” If I were to ask this of an animal (and if animals could speak), they would respond “I am a cat” or “I am a dugong.” The answer to this always describes the kind of thing it is, or rather the kind of being it is. God’s answer to this question seems, at first, nonsensical. “What kind of being are you?” to which He responds “I am.” It is not His response which is nonsensical, but the question itself.
Everything in creation is a kind of being. We all “have” being, if we can put it that way. And everything that exists only does so because God created it. Everything only “is” because God wills it “be.” God is the source of everything that “is.” God is the source of all being. What that means is that God is not a “being” in the sense that you and I are “beings.” God does not “exist” in the same sense that we do. We exist contingently, meaning we are wholly dependent on God for our existence. God, on the other hand, exists necessarily—He could not not exist. That’s why He says to Moses “I am who I am.” He is what makes existence possible, giving “being” to His creation so that His creation can exist. This is why His response is as it is. “I am” emphasizes that God is not merely another kind of being, like a frog or even a demigod. He is being itself, the source of being for all things that exist.
The Jews understood this. They knew the tale of Moses very well, and they knew what the implications of God’s response were. This is why they are so outraged when Jesus says this of himself. It’s not because Jesus is claiming to be incredibly old, having seen Abraham, and it’s not because Jesus might be a time traveler. The Jews also knew that the only time travelers are Doc Brown and his trusty sidekick Marty McFly. And also Biff that one time, but that was still because of Doc and Marty. They were outraged because Jesus is claiming to be that necessary being. He is claiming to be “being.” They know immediately that Jesus is telling them he is God. This is scandalous! They immediately try to stone him for his blasphemy!
But it is true! The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the three persons of the one God who is the source of all being. The “I am!” It is why Jesus is able to say “whoever keeps my word will never see death.” Only God could promise this, because it is only God who has power over death.