St. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged a way of praying among his followers that involved engaging our imagination — to picture yourself as a character in the story, hearing the words that are exchanged, meditating on the look that crosses Jesus’ face, or imagining what it must have been like in the crowd as they witnessed Jesus crucified. As we contemplate the greatest mysteries of our faith in these holy days, it can be good to ask ourselves: What do I see and hear as I pray with these Scriptures?
Since we are in Year B of our lectionary cycle, I would like to propose to you just a few things for your prayer with Mark’s Gospel, whose passion account we heard on Palm Sunday and whose announcement of the Resurrection we will relive at the Easter Vigil. Although Mark is decidedly the fastest-paced Gospel (everything happens “immediately” in the 16 chapters of Mark), his passion account certainly takes a more solemn pace.
After the events of the Last Supper, Jesus and his Disciples cross the Kidron Valley to the place called the Mount of Olives, where Peter learns of his impending denial of Jesus. And it is there that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus again lays down his will to the Father, praying, “Not what I will, but what you will.” One important detail that becomes evident if you have ever visited the Holy Land is that this agonizing prayer happens with the whole of Jerusalem in the background. In other words, it seems very likely that as Jesus prayed about his coming death, he could literally see across the valley, high atop the hill above Jerusalem, the place of his coming execution: Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Given the topography of the land, it also seems likely that (if you were not sleeping) you could have watched the torch-bearing band of arresters from the very moment they left the city with the betrayer. And yet, Jesus stayed, for he knew that it was the Father’s will that this would happen — that he must undergo all of this for our salvation.
What comes to be narrated next is highly ironic. Jesus faces the Sanhedrin (an assembly of elders who acted as a sort of Jewish court) and is resolutely surrendered to Pilate for the order of execution. Meanwhile, Peter is caught up in a trial of his own — one in which, as we know, he denies ever knowing Christ. Mark narrates the trial of Peter between the two trials of Jesus — and what becomes evident is that even while we consistently fail and fumble in our following of Christ, Jesus is always faithful. He never fails to choose us.
Discipleship overall in Mark’s Gospel takes on a certain sense of failure. The Disciples, even up to the last moment, misunderstand the Christ and his mission in this world. The very crowds that hailed Jesus as King when he entered Jerusalem are now brainwashed into believing that he has blasphemed and deserves death, to the point that we even see them crying out for his crucifixion.
But all becomes redeemed in the moment of the Resurrection. As the dawn of a new day breaks, the women approach the tomb and, seeing the large stone rolled away, they enter. It is there, inside the dark tomb of death, that the very first Easter proclamation is made: Light has conquered the darkness! Death with all its power is banished, humanity redeemed. The young man, as Mark describes him, robed in white, gives us the shortest but most poignant kerygma ever preached: “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” It is the shortest (complete) Gospel ever preached: birth, death, and now the Resurrection! And it happens here; in the impossible sadness of death, hope is resurrected, and life blossoms forth. And as the young man tells them, Jesus now goes before his Disciples to Galilee — back to the place where it all began. It is Mark’s way of telling us that true and lasting discipleship is made possible now only in light of the Resurrection.
May this Easter find us rejoicing anew in these paschal graces and eager again to embark on the path of discipleship, here in the light of his Resurrection.
Father Michael Friedel is pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and St. Thomas Parish in Decatur and is an associate vocations director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.