The violet of penitence becomes more inescapable as crosses and images are veiled to usher in Passiontide. This year’s cycle of Sunday Gospels is from St Mark, which means we shall read his version of the Passion on Palm Sunday.
Scholars describe St Mark’s Gospel as a Passion with a very long introduction, because it is really only then that we begin to get any kind of development of character or motivation. It contains the whole story of Peter’s denial, for example, which is remarkable considering that the source of St Mark’s Gospel is believed to be Peter himself.
Mark’s Passion narrative begins with the anointing at Bethany. Jesus has consistently predicted that he is going to be handed over to the elders and chief priests. Its imminence is signalled by this gesture of anointing from a woman who intuitively understands, and anoints his body for burial. Jesus celebrates the Passover and tells the disciples that he won’t eat it again until the kingdom has come. They go to Gethsemane.
In Mark’s vivid account of the Agony in the Garden, Jesus says to his disciples: “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death.” He shows a Jesus who is profoundly affected by the thought of what is going to happen. The Greek word means that Jesus shudders with horror as he contemplates his Passion. Jesus’s words are scriptural; He is partly quoting Psalm 42, which begins the prayers at the foot of the altar, “So cast down, so sorrowful is my soul”, but he adds “to the point of death”. It is important to note that even in this state, the natural vocabulary of Jesus’s utterance is that of Scripture and prayer. This is not a modern emoting because I need to put my feelings out there for the sake of my psychological health and to facilitate honest and healthy communication with those around me. It is not merely self-referential. The purpose of expressing this sorrow in the vocabulary of the psalmist is to direct it as he has directed everything else, towards the Father.
Even the vocabulary of Jesus’s suffering is prayer. Similarly, later on he will express his mindset in the words of prayer: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” This teaches me that suffering can turn me fearfully inward or it can make me turn outwards in the faith that there is One who cares and understands, even though He does not immediately change it.
The good Christian is not the one who doesn’t feel things, who can smile bravely though the tears, but the one who can feel the full range of emotions yet chooses, under grace, to direct these towards the God who desires that I share the fullness of his life. The fact that Jesus’s prayer at the height of suffering is expressed in the language of the psalms also reminds us that prayer is about everything that befalls me, not just the highlights I feel consciously able to relate to my relationship to God. That Jesus prays more earnestly when he suffers tells us, equally, that suffering is not just a psychological crisis but also a spiritual one, and as such can only find remedy through what is spiritual.
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