Palm Sunday is a mass of contradictions!
It begins with a joyful procession of pilgrims, coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. That feast commemorated God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. In each annual celebration God renewed his commitment to rescue his people from evil, and they renewed their commitment to him.
In one such group of pilgrims the crowd proclaimed Jesus to be the son of David, who had come in the name of the Lord. He is the promised Messiah who triumphantly entered the city of God to claim his kingdom. In his honour the crowds strewed his path with their cloaks and with branches.
But then, what a contrast with Christ's Passion! Mark's account of the crucifixion is the bleakest of the four Gospels. There's no one present at the foot of the cross to support Jesus. He does not pray for the forgiveness of his persecutors, or offer hope to the repentant thief. Jesus does not entrust his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple. And before he dies Jesus neither declares that he'd accomplished his task nor commits his life and death into his Father's hands.
In fact his only words from the cross are his cry of dereliction, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' And the onlookers completely misunderstand what Jesus said. Finally, Jesus utters an inarticulate cry and plunges into the darkness of death. Mark presents the crucified Christ as feeling completely abandoned by God and man, totally misunderstood.
And yet everyone had proclaimed him king. As he triumphantly entered Jerusalem the crowds had hailed him as king. When nailed to the cross, they taunted him for claiming to be king. Pilate condemned him as 'Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.' The Roman soldiers mocked him as a king, and crowned him with thorns. The irony of Mark's Passion Narrative is that everyone was right in proclaiming Christ as king, but no one understood what that meant.
The crowd had hoped for a leader who would deliver them from Roman occupation, but Jesus had come to free us from a far greater tyranny -- that of sin and death. In spite of appearances, Jesus was not a defeated failure, nailed helplessly to the cross. It was there, on the cross, not in a palace or in the Temple, that Jesus was enthroned as king. By dying on the cross he conquered all the forces of evil hurled at him.
Why does Mark depict Christ's Passion in such a bleak, stark way? The crucified Christ has identified with us in our suffering, and we can identify with him. He, who has experienced the loneliness of the cross, is one with us, supporting us, in our suffering. It was precisely in appearing to be a tragic failure that Jesus defeated the power of sin and death. We can share in his victory over evil, if we take up our crosses and follow him. In apparent defeat we can share the triumph of the cross.
The very bleakness of this message is reassuring. By confronting the horror of Christ's suffering Mark shows that the very darkness of the crucifixion highlights the glory of its victory.
For Mark the true meaning of the 'Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God' is only revealed on the cross. While everybody else misunderstood Jesus, only the pagan centurion glimpsed his true identity. He realised that Christ's very death proclaimed that, 'Truly, this was a son of God.' At last someone understood Jesus!
The centurion's profession of faith forms the climax to Mark's passion narrative. He'd set out to show us that 'Jesus Christ, the Son of God' was the Suffering Servant of the Lord, who died on the cross to save us from the power of evil. That's the essence of the Good News, what it really means for Jesus to be the Christ.
As we begin Holy Week we are called to travel with Jesus. With the pilgrims waving their branches, let us joyfully welcome Jesus as the promised Messiah. As we do so, we must remember that his sovereignty is very different from any other. If we are to enter his kingdom and share his victory we must follow Christ on the Way of the Cross.