Isenheim Altat

Becoming Human

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

Mark 11:1-10
Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Mark 14:1-15:47

“So far as being human goes, the only difference between Jesus and me is that he lived out his humanity more consistently than I do.” – Herbert McCabe

Those who dismiss Christianity as a comforting myth are inattentive readers of Scripture. They can’t, for instance, have read Mark’s gospel in anything but a superficial or tendentious way.

Mark’s Jesus dies horribly, nailed to an imperial torture device, abandoned by his male disciples (though not by some of the women) and even, his words imply, by the Father. He’s buried hurriedly, and if the original text ends, as in the earliest complete manuscripts, at chapter 16, verse 8, with the women trembling, bewildered, and afraid at the man in white in the empty tomb, we’re left wondering why Mark should call his account “Good News.” Yet this first gospel records, along with the letters of Paul, the earliest surviving declarations that this human, Jesus, is the Christ, Son of Man, anointed one of God.

Mark’s Son of Man isn’t merely human, but he is profoundly human. He is, in fact, the model human, the One we are called to follow. Mark shares much about Jesus’ humanity, including that he eats, sleeps, spits, walks, touches, and suffers temptation. In this week’s readings, we learn still more.

We learn more about how Jesus observes and challenges his Jewish tradition. He faithfully attends to the ritual of Pesach, celebrating the Passover feast with his friends, during which he makes the astonishing claim that matzo and wine are his body and blood. He receives the unnamed woman’s anointing as ritual preparation for his burial, a moment of perfume, tears, and loving touch echoing the Song of Songs, the traditional reading for Passover’s first night.

We can also see how he offended those most concerned with observing the Law given by God. From the moment Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, he consistently locates authority in himself as proper interpretation and fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. This is dangerous stuff to say and do before a people for whom Torah was their ultimate guarantor of freedom and survival – still more dangerous at Passover in an occupied city while the Procurator is in town to crush any and all threats, however small, to Imperial rule. When Jesus reveals his Messianic secret before the Sanhedrin, what choice did the faithful have?

So when I struggle with faithfulness to my beloved and broken church, whose failings are at least as conspicuous as its holiness, there’s likely something to learn from Jesus’ example. I’m not the fulfillment of the Law, but I can be both faithfully observant and constructively critical without accommodating myself to the ways of the Empire. I’m just not sure if I’m prepared to go where that approach landed Jesus. I’ll need help – which is precisely what the church is for.

We also learn that Jesus trusts in an economy of Divine abundance and care rather than scarcity and threat. He sends disciples to find him a colt and they do. Ditto when he sends others to find a room for the Passover feast. He accepts the woman’s gift of perfume without fretting over the cost. He seals his own doom while on trial, apparently preferring truth to personal safety.

Yet he doesn’t want to die, and though he presses on toward the end, his cry of Divine abandonment must not be ignored. His nonviolent witness can’t be attributed to blessed certainty that everything would turn out fine in the end.

So, what degree of trust do I still have to learn to be the human God intends? How far into the cloud of unknowing am I willing to go? How much help do I need?

And we learn about Mark’s singular attention to Jesus’ human death. The entire gospel points there. Though they can’t take a hint, the disciples are warned three times before it happens. When the woman anoints Jesus’ feet in Bethany, he tells them she’s preparing him for burial. Jesus says that anyone who wishes to follow him must first “pick up his cross.”

In Mark’s passion account, nothing’s more clear. We’re told in so many words that Jesus dies, how Pilate notes the timing, and how Joseph of Arimathea wraps the corpse in a linen cloth and buries it while two Marys watch. As if anticipating the Docetists and the Quran (sura 4, ayat 157-8), Mark demonstrates that Jesus did more than merely appear to die.

Jesus died. I will certainly die. So will you. Is it possible to be human without fully living into this truth? What in my life must change for me to do so? Will I ever be ready?

And that’s where we’re left for now: full of questions and doubts at the tomb of a mutilated corpse. Our faith tells us there’s more to the story than this, but we’ll have to wait a bit. The kenosis hymn of Philippians tells us that this is only a stop on the inconceivable emptying and ultimate exultation of the Son, but it is a stop, however temporary. Easter is coming, but not for a week. It will not do for us, the living, to pretend time does not matter to our mortal bodies.

The tomb where we pause is strangely open. Since we have nothing better to do than wait, what’s keeping us from stepping inside to dwell in its cool darkness? What better way to prepare for the coming victory (in which we share by grace alone) than to be present to its terrible cost?

Where will you dwell this week as Jesus lies in the tomb? What neglected part of your humanity waits there for you to recover?

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