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The Passion of Jesus and the Ministry of the Priest

Called to serve God’s people at all times, what can we find in the Passion narratives of Mark and John?

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This coming Holy Week, Christians around the world will listen to two different Passion narratives — that of Mark’s Gospel on Palm Sunday and that of John’s Gospel on Good Friday. For all four Gospels, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the endpoint and climax of their narratives, but each account is distinctive and reflects the accents and tones of the Evangelists’ overall portrait of Jesus.

The life-giving death of Jesus is at the center of the Christian faith for all followers of Jesus, no matter what their role or place in the Church. Yet, we can ask what will reflection on the passion of Jesus through the lens of these two Gospels mean for those who are called to the ministry of the priesthood? And what might they mean for us now during these times?

I doubt if many of us will feel nostalgic about the year we have just been through: the worldwide scourge of the pandemic; the deep wounds of racism torn open and the resulting chaos and conflict; a political season filled with divisions and crude public discourse; economic hardships on every front — the list can go on. For us priests the scar tissue of the Church’s abuse crisis is still painful, and now the impact of social distancing is withering many parishes and congregations. Where is the prophet Jeremiah and his nonstop laments when we need him?

The accounts of Jesus’ suffering we hear this Lent will not be heard in a vacuum, but in a very different mode than in previous years.

The Gospel of Mark — The Passion of Jesus and the Crisis of Discipleship

Over a century ago, a German biblical scholar famously said that Mark’s Gospel is “a passion narrative with a long introduction.” Most commentators believe that Mark wrote his Gospel for the Christian community of Rome, a community reeling from the devastating persecution it had experienced under Emperor Nero in the late 60s of the first century.

Miracle of loaves and fishes
Miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes. Jaroslav/AdobeStock

No doubt, there were heroic Christians in that community that gave their lives in witness to the Faith. But there is also reason to believe that there were those who failed, who in dangerous times masked their Christian identity out of fear.

Mark’s Gospel seems to hint at this in Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower in describing the fate of the seed that fell on rocky soil: “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground who, when they hear the word, receive it at once with joy. But they have no root; they last only for a time. Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (Mk 4:16-17).

There is an intensity in Mark’s description of the mission of Jesus that ultimately leads to his passion. Jesus is on a relentless mission of healing and exorcism — liberating humans from the destructive power of evil in all its forms: calming the man with a seizure in the synagogue of Capernaum; quelling the deadly fever of Simon’s mother-in-law; healing a leper who has been isolated from his village with a terrible contagion; forgiving the sins and curing the body of a paralytic lowered by his friends on a stretcher from the roof to the room where Jesus was preaching; restoring the withered hand of a man on the Sabbath; bringing relief to a woman plagued with a flow of blood for 12 years; bringing Jairus’ young daughter back from the brink of death and then making sure someone fed her; bringing healing to the little daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman because of her mother’s unquenchable faith; healing blind Bartimaeus begging by the roadside. The list can go on. Add to this the dramatic acts of Jesus’ feeding of the tired and hungry crowds that followed him, and taming the raging sea and rescuing his distraught disciples.

Mark understands Jesus’ mission as one of loving service — diakonia — and affirms that ultimately this provocative mission, taking priority over all other commitments, would mushroom into opposition to Jesus by the authorities and lead ultimately to his death. Jesus’ own words underscore this: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). The death of Jesus was a final outpouring of his spirit, a life for others — and a life that God would accept and abundantly renew.

The contrast of Jesus’ example with that of his disciples is startling in Mark’s account. They are privileged to be disciples, called to “follow him,” and invited to share in his mission of “fishing for people.” There is hardly a scene in the Gospel in which the disciples are not included; in fact, they are often alone with Jesus and receive special teaching from him. And Jesus’ promises them a hundredfold in the age to come.

But the notable emphasis of Mark’s portrayal is on the frailty, weakness and even abject failure of the disciples of Jesus. Throughout his mission, the disciples struggle to understand Jesus: they do not grasp his parables; they protest his feeding of the crowds (“Send them away to the surrounding villages”; “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii of bread for this crowd?”); Peter, James, John and the entire group fail to grasp Jesus’ repeated predictions of his sufferings — Peter rebuking Jesus for speaking in this way; James and John seeking places of power in his future kingdom while Jesus speaks of humility; all of them arguing about which of them was the “greatest” at the very moment Jesus speaks of the suffering he faces.

No wonder that after his Galilean mission, Jesus’ patience seems to break: “‘Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?’ They answered him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?’ They answered [him], ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’” (Mk 8:17-21).

The mounting incomprehension of the disciples — their “hardness of heart” as the Gospel brands them — comes to its final expression during the passion of Jesus. Judas, one of the Twelve, betrays him. The three chosen to accompany Jesus in his anguished prayer in Gethsemane fall asleep. When the armed band comes to arrest Jesus, all his disciples flee, including (only in Mark’s account) one who runs away naked and in panic, leaving his clothing in the hands of his would-be captors.

Jesus washing Peter's feet
Jesus washes the feet of Peter in a fresco in the Church of St. Matthew in Stitar, Croatia. zatletic/AdobeStock

But one disciple still remains — Peter, the first called and the spokesperson for the rest of Jesus’ followers. He lingers in the courtyard of the high priest only to ignominiously deny repeatedly that he even knows Jesus when questioned by a maidservant. Jesus had predicted this abject moment at the Last Supper. “All of you will have your faith shaken,” Jesus declared. But Peter had objected — “Even though all should have their faith shaken, mine will not be.” Jesus warned Peter that this very night before the cock crows twice “you will deny me three times.” Peter’s bravado and the tragedy of his impending failure are driven home by his blustering reply: “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And Mark’s Gospel notes: “And they all spoke similarly” (14:31).

In Mark’s account, no disciple formally chosen by Jesus stands by him at his moment of acute suffering and his encounter with death. The Evangelist does note that some women stood at a distance from the cross, a vigil of sorrow. He describes them as faithful to Jesus — “following” him and “serving” him in Galilee, and “coming up with him to Jerusalem.”

In Mark’s stark account, the community of disciples explicitly called by Jesus and commissioned to share in his ministry of healing tragically and publicly fell apart in the face of suffering and the threat of death.

For Mark’s Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus is also a moment of reconciliation. The disciples who had abandoned Jesus would not be abandoned by him. They would see him again in Galilee, the place where they had first been chosen and began to share in his mission of healing.

This is the sober narrative we will hear on Palm Sunday. A sad story, yet ultimately a hopeful story of new life, a narrative that is ultimately compassionate toward human weakness, a story of reconciliation and renewal. The restoration of a community of disciples that had failed Jesus but would also experience his healing touch and, sadder but wiser, would be invited once again to take up his mission.

The Gospel of John — The Passion of Jesus As Sign of God’s Love for the World

On Good Friday, we will hear the Passion narrative of John’s Gospel. It is still a story of Jesus’ suffering, but the atmosphere stands in sharp contrast to Mark’s narrative. Yes, Jesus is arrested by an armed band; he is interrogated by the religious authorities and by Pilate, the Roman governor; he is abused and tortured by soldiers; he is led to Calvary and pinned to the cross; he truly dies.

Yet, throughout John’s account, one senses a paradoxical sense of triumph breaking through this story of suffering. When the armed band comes to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Olives, they fall to the ground, helpless when Jesus states his divine name, “I Am”; the disciples do not flee in fear, rather Jesus demands that they should go freely; Jesus seems to turn the tables on his interrogators, confounding the High Priest and striking fear and awe in Pilate, a Roman imperial official; his Crucifixion appears to be a royal tableau — over Jesus’ head written in multiple languages is his status as “King of the Jews”; the beloved disciple and Mary his mother stand vigil by him, and, at the moment of death, a soldier’s lance draws out “blood and water” — symbols of God’s Spirit in John’s Gospel.

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BUILDING A CIVILIZATION OF LOVE

Pope Francis reminds us at the conclusion of Laudato Si’ and throughout his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, that the mission of the Church is “to build a civilization of love,” a phrase that evokes the spirit of John’s Gospel. Every gesture of love, no matter how small or humble, the pope reminds us, offsets the toxic gestures of violence and exploitation.

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John’s Passion account proclaims that love is more powerful than death — this is the underlying motif of the entire Gospel. In this Gospel’s first discourse, Jesus, the Word Incarnate, states the ultimate purpose of his God-given mission, one of the most frequently quoted verses in all the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17).

Throughout the Gospel, the mission of Jesus to reveal God’s redemptive love for the world is proclaimed in word and “sign” — John’s term for the revelatory miracles of Jesus. Jesus’ discourses present him as the living water, as the bread of life, as the light of the world, as the Good Shepherd, as the Gate, the Way, and the Truth, as the resurrection and the life. His signs reveal God’s healing love: restoring the son of a royal official in Capernaum; giving life and courage to a man immobile by the pool of Bethsaida for 38 years; opening the eyes of the man born blind at the pool of Siloam; giving the gift of life itself to his friend Lazarus of Bethany. And those other gestures of respect and sensitivity to human plight: saving a newly wed couple from embarrassment at the feast of Cana; a serious and playful jousting with the woman at the well in Samaria; protecting from cruel shame a woman crudely and publicly accused of adultery; accepting with grace the devotion of Mary of Bethany who anoints his feet with fragrant oil and dries them with her hair.

In the haunting and paradoxical logic of John’s Gospel, the death of Jesus becomes the ultimate, impeachable sign of God’s love for the world. He proclaims this at the final supper with his disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). As all the signs and words of Jesus were motivated by love, so, too, was his sacrificial death.

As he gathered with his disciples on eve of his Crucifixion, the narrator of the Gospel states it unequivocally: “Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (13:1-2).

The vocabulary John uses for “end” in Greek is telos, which means the “end,” or the “goal,” or “completion.” At the moment of Jesus’ death in John’s account, the crucified yet triumphant Christ exclaims: “It is finished” — repeating the same root word in its verbal form: tetelestai. His “work” — his God-given mission to reveal the infinite love of God for our world — is demonstrated in the most compelling gift of love than anyone can give, to offer one’s life to save another. “No greater love than this …”

Way of the Cross
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The Passion of Jesus in Our Times

The two Gospel narratives we will hear this Holy Week offer powerful contrasts to us, especially at this time when our world seems deeply shaken and anxious. What might we, as priests who are called to serve God’s people at all times, find in these Passion stories? Priestly service is demonstrated in leading communities of faith; attempting to draw Christians together in the bonds of love and service Jesus commands; urging fellow Christians to turn their eyes to our wounded world and bring it healing and peace; giving witness to our faith in the way we lead the community’s prayer and preside at its Eucharist, privileged to proclaim the Word of God in multiple ways; standing before our people as a fellow sinner and, at the same time, inviting them to experience the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Considering the many ways and different circumstances that we as priests are called to exercise our ministry, what does the passion of Jesus mean to us at this moment in our lives?

From Mark’s portrait of Jesus’ fallible disciples, we are reminded that we are privileged but also flawed. When Pope Francis had his first interview as pope, he was asked by the journalist, “Who is Pope Francis, truly?” His instant reply, “I am a sinner.” No false humility there, but a recognition of his humanness. We, too, are called individually and collectively to recognize that we are in need of healing and forgiveness.

The Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the Church triumphant as “without spot or wrinkle” (5:27), but as we have painfully learned in the past few years, we are not there yet! For us now, authentic humility goes with the territory.

In portraying the first disciples of Jesus in starkly human terms, Mark also calls us to transparency and honesty. We who are sinners are to deal with an abundance of compassion for those we serve. No arrogance. No attitude of censure and judgment. Kindness and mercy must be the bywords for disciples who contemplate the Passion narrative of Mark’s Gospel.

And if Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ disciples does not blink at their failures, neither does it mute the power of the Resurrection. Through God’s love, we are healed and restored to our mission. Our hope must be strong and contagious.

And John’s Passion narrative reminds us of the ground on which we ultimately stand, as followers of Jesus and as priests. The God we serve, the God we proclaim, the God who calls us into being, is a God of indiscriminate, unlimited love. To share in the mission of Jesus portrayed in John’s Gospel is to love the world, even as we are wary of its threats. God’s love will sustain us “unto the end.” And to the best of our feeble efforts that is what we as priests are called to witness and proclaim to our people.

Finally, it is striking that the key motifs of both Mark and John’s Passion stories are evident in their account of the Last Supper — the biblical foundation for the Eucharist that is at the center of our priestly lives. Here, Jesus reminds the disciples that his body is broken for them and his blood shed for them. Here they are promised that despite their failures Jesus will heal them and renew their discipleship. Here in the Johannine foot washing we are reminded we are called to serve, not to be served. And here, in Jesus’ farewell to his disciples, he reminds us that there is no greater love than his for us.

FATHER DONALD SENIOR, CP, is president emeritus and chancellor of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (CTU), where he is also a member of the faculty as professor of New Testament.

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Last Supper
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HEALING AT THE LAST SUPPER

Father Senior notes that despite the disciples’ abject weakness and failure, the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel will also heal the disciples. At the Last Supper, a sign of Eucharists to come, Jesus uses the elements of the Passover ritual to speak of his death and resurrection once again. The bread broken is Jesus’ body given for them. The cup of wine poured out is his blood shed for them.

“All of you will have your faith shaken,” Jesus predicts, “but after I am raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee” (cf. 14:27-28).

This will also be the final word of Mark’s Gospel — the same promise of Jesus to be repeated by the angel at the empty tomb where the women had come to anoint his body: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you’” (16:6-7).

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