Monday before Easter


A revised version of this collection of commentaries, entitled Stir Up, O Lord, has been published in paperback format and as an e-book (for all major e-readers) by Sacristy Press. Buy now »


For the Epistle
Isaiah 63
Mark 14

Chopped into pieces, the pronouncements of the prophets sound clear and consistent but viewed in the round what stands out is inner turmoil. The multi-authored Book of Isaiah is inevitably volatile but in this passage even ‘The Third” Isaiah is deeply troubled. The scenario is always the same: God rescued his Chosen People from slavery in Egypt and almost from the first moment of their liberation they turned their backs on him; he still loves them but his prophets proclaim that the only way the people will be brought back to faithfulness is through terrible vengeance; and the result is that God’s prophets and foreign powers form an uneasy alliance against the people and their secular and religious leaders. Thus, in a remarkably dramatic passage which associates wine with blood, the outsider comes in red as if from the wine press where, says Isaiah, he has trodden the grapes alone; and that fruitful treading will turn violent and the blood from it will sprinkle his garments. Yet no sooner is the vengeance pronounced than he looks back to the great love shown by God for his people and, here is the paradox, Isaiah calls on him to look with pity on the unfaithful people because his sanctuary has been violated by the outsiders he sent.

The Gospel, too, is full of inner conflict but, this being Mark (cf St. Mark’s Day), there is a complete absence of heightened language. Chapter 14 opens with the plot against Jesus set in a handful of words. The scene then shifts to the house of Simon the Leper who is hosting a dinner during which a woman anoints Jesus, causing some dissention which he dispels by saying she is foreshadowing his burial. There is no evidence that the woman in question was Mary Magdalene (Mark names her at the tomb in 15:47 alongside Mary the mother of Joses); neither is there any evidence that Judas led the dissent but Mark reports his defection immediately after Jesus’ praise of the woman. [passage=John 12:1-8[/passage], more credibly, names Mary of Bethany as the anointer and, less credibly, specifies Judas as the leading dissenter. Mark is clear about the significance of the woman’s act but, over time, this woman and two others were rolled into a composite caricature of a reformed prostitute unfit to be a leader of the early church.

The emblematic pitcher of water leads Jesus and his Disciples to the upper room, to another domestic scene shot through with external threat. Not only is the first Eucharist performed against a background of treachery, it is at least part performed in the presence of the traitor. Mark (unlike Matthew) does not specify Judas’ exit but, more important, the four accounts of the Institution of the Eucharist (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:15-20; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 which is the earliest) are by no means consistent as Paul Bradshaw points out (Eucharistic Origins). The passage from Isaiah anticipates the pattern of this “Last Supper”, both domestic and global, sacrificial and treacherous, constituted of the bread of solidarity and the wine of risk; but the difference between the two sets of images is that the outcome in Isaiah is always in the balance; there is, contrary to popular sentiment, no closure in prophesy; its self referential arguments are always inconclusive but in Mark’s Jesus, acting in the full knowledge of his forthcoming death, we have the assurance of his Resurrection which he promises directly after the image of the scattered sheep and the sustaining food of his own flesh and blood.

Mark then proceeds to describe the events of Thursday night and Friday with his usual, unsentimental briskness: the three chief Disciples, Peter, James and John fail three times to watch and pray, foreshadowing Peter’s three denials; Judas arrives with the religious militia and Jesus is kissed by Judas, arrested and abandoned by all his friends (including a young man who only appears in Mark and, by tradition, is said to be Mark, who leaves his outer garment in order to escape). Again, cinematographically, Mark inter-weaves the public trial with the almost domestic fireside denial. Jesus condemns himself as “The Christ, the son of the Blessed” and is mocked by his accusers.

The impending doom in Isaiah and the betrayal, abandonment, trial and mockery of Jesus seem so cataclysmic that we may wonder how they relate to us; but Isaiah’s dilemma is not singular nor traumatic but familiar and chronic; and Jesus was betrayed by a friend and abandoned by the others, tried by defensively pietistic and frightened officials and mocked by recent admirers of his great works, relieved at his fall from power. Put this way it looks more familiar: unfaithfulness is the natural corollary of free will in imperfect beings; friendships forged over decades can be broken by the most trivial of misunderstandings; officials that are not prudentially defensive are usually hounded out of office; and the phenomenon of the idol set up to be knocked down is so familiar that it is often to differentiate the reporting of celebrity behaviour from soap opera. One of the most haunting qualities of the Passion narrative, seen best in the stark words of Mark, is its familiarity. There is nothing in it which we do not recognise; there is no role in it, other than that of Jesus, which we could not play. If we look carefully and honestly at these events it will not be long before we see ourselves, people not only of blood and betrayal but also of wine and ointment.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Does Mark have anything special to offer in his Passion narrative?
  2. Does it matter where, when and by whom Jesus’ feet were anointed?
  3. There is a tradition that Mark’s Gospel owes much to St. Peter; how fair is he to his supposed narrator?
  4. When Jesus admitted that he was the Christ, what options did his judges have?
  5. Write the story in Mark 14 as the script for a soap opera.

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)