Opening the Word: Passion contemplations

The readings for Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, are dramatic and demanding. They are excruciating in their raw depictions of violence and suffering. They also are marked by exultation in the glory streaming forth from the pain and sacrifice of the Suffering Servant. Glory comes not from the power to suppress and enslave, but from the freely chosen obedience of selfless love. 

St. Mark’s account of the Passion is terse and vivid; it is replete with unsparing descriptions of sin, viciousness and evil. “The behavior of men in the Passion account,” noted Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “is portrayed with a realism bordering on gruesomeness. Any and all sins are committed against God himself in the person of Jesus.” And that inescapable fact is true today. The bloody drama of what happened 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem is not safely stored in the basement of history, but confronts us in the course of our ordinary, daily lives. For we, too, have sinned. We also have been tempted and have failed. And we, at the foot of the Cross, are invited to admit our part in the death of Jesus Christ and to confess his name, his identity, his place in history and in our lives. 

St. Mark’s account is a marvel of literary economy and theological implication. Here I will just highlight some statements made within it, with the invitation to contemplate the love, humility, suffering and glory of the Son of God. 

“Amen, I say to you, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” The woman with the jar of perfumed oil is not named, but she is remembered. More than remembered, she is redeemed. More than redeemed, she becomes, through Jesus’ declaration, a sign of redemption. Why? Because she emptied herself of all she had to express her love for — and faith in — the One who emptied himself and took the form of a slave on her behalf. She did what she could. Will I? Will you? 

“Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” Judas walked and lived with Jesus for three years. And then he betrayed him. Yet Jesus gave Judas every chance to come to his senses and repent. His love for the sinner endured the proximity of the sin, even while his respect for man’s free will allowed the damnation freely chosen. 

“This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” Fully aware of his approaching death, the God-man made clear he was freely giving his life and establishing a new and everlasting covenant between God and mankind. This “stream of gladness,” as St. Clement of Alexandria called it, is the Eucharist. 

“Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.” How have I denied Christ in the dark hours of my life? When have I chosen the acceptance of strangers over being identified as a follower of Christ? Why? 

When asked, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?,” Jesus answered: “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’” These are either the words of a lunatic who has lost touch with reality, or words from the Lord of reality. Pilate turned away. 

“Truly this man was the Son of God!” The Roman centurion recognized deity in death. He did not turn away. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of