Praying Mark’s approach to the impending passion with a small group last week yielded an eye-opening “A hah!” There are four very different flavors to the texts read over the different years on Palm Sunday, each with its own tone and tasks. When Lent is prayed as the annual retreat of the beloved community, the stories of this Sunday carry us through the gate where we face – again – our own death in our own Jerusalem. This particular one is the death that awaits us through the experience of pathless suffering epitomized by Mark.
Here’s some of what we noticed followed by possible reflections for a community on the 6th Sunday of its annual retreat:
In Mark’s version the Christ is no longer straddling the two animals of Matthew’s first movement (a donkey and a foal, perhaps representing the splitting impossibility of riding both the old vehicle and the new at the same time). The invitation presented by Matthew is for the community to turn from the old vehicles that have allowed goodness to blossom and to undertake a journey on an untried vehicle with an unknown destination. The one thing known is that the road leads to Jerusalem; the ‘gate’ to the new life is through death. In a felt way, the long struggle of Mark is the process of letting go into the death of what was.
To the outer eye this part of the journey is strikingly ungraceful, something like we see in Mark when Jesus the Christ enters Jerusalem riding “a colt that has never been ridden.” One member of our group who spent her summers working at a horse camp makes the point that an untried colt is a wild animal — jumpy, anxious, unpredictable, and given to bucking. Put someone on it and people around it shouting and waving things and you have a circus. This ride was anything but stately. The point is that the ‘new way’ emerging from the death of the old has no tried and true elegance or easy grace of the sort that comes when we’ve done a thing countless times and know how to do it well. In this movement grace lurches.
What’s important is that the journey be undertaken, regardless. Mark’s story has a detail missing in any other Palm Sunday text: “They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street.” Remember, Mark’s Roman community is the one living in fear of the knock on the door that will announce tearing choices to be made. If you are discovered to be Christian, you and your family will be taken to Nero’s circus and killed by wild animals as entertainment. Or you can betray the faith and the community that gives you life by naming another family who will go to their death. Either way is sure death; the first death is physical and the second is a living death that is both spiritual and social. Mark 8:35 was real for this community: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
It would be tempting to hide in terror behind locked doors trying to stave off the moment of reckoning. But this untried colt of Palm Sunday is near a door, outside in the street. Hiding in fear is no salvation. Come out into the public street and face your terror and your death because this is the way to life. Ride this untried Way, as graceless as it may appear, in trust that it is the Way to Life. Christ leads the way.
Another detail unique to Mark is what happens upon Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem. Nothing much! “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Rather than building to the expected crescendo, the action peters out.
It’s resonant with the slowed down pace of the second path which I often liken to swimming in taffy. It can seem like there’s a lot of jerky uncoordinated movement, something like riding an unbroken colt, followed by a general sense of vagueness. Why are we here? What now? Unlike Matthew and Luke when action is closer at hand, it takes awhile to build to a cleansing of the temple.
The wonderful counterpoint read on this Sunday is in John’s account which comes on the heels of the raising of Lazarus. There is not a lot of story line; just the response of the people to the one whose reputation precedes him. The Christ of the Cosmos, the living Breath from the time before time simply responds to what is welling up in the people. He finds himself a young donkey to ride and sits on it, heading into his personal death unafraid. He’s unruffled and in charge. It’s a grounding, hopeful reminder of whose great Pattern it is we walk, something the disciples didn’t see and remember until much later. The Good News is that the Living Breath of the Holy is breathing the whole pattern in the times we’re aware and the times we’re stumbling along. It’s not all up to us.
Possible reflection questions for a community in Mark:
- How do we as community hold our own times of lurching along without knowing where we’re going or how to get there? (Are we trying to force a level of orderliness that isn’t right for the time, i.e. a strategic planning process for the future when the task is to ride an untried colt ungracefully into our own death together?)
- What is our collective response to the ‘nothing much’ moments when there’s uncoordinated movement followed by a general sense of vagueness and maybe even let down? Does it signal to us that there’s something wrong (that needs to be fixed) or can we hold the possibility that such times may be part of a necessary season? How do we consciously work with and through the seasons of not-knowing and vagueness along the second path?
- What does “facing our own death together” look like? Do we hide behind closed doors trying to stave off notice? Are we able to come out into the “public” street with one another, becoming visible with who we are, what we know and what we don’t know?
- How are we trying to “save our life” and what is the cost? How are we riding into losing our life and what does that look like?