The Passion of Christ according to Mark

This is the first of three Lenten Talks given by Fr Stuart.
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Introduction – An overview of Passion narratives

Each Holy Week we are presented with two Gospel accounts of Christ’s arrest, trial, crucifixion and death.  The Palm Sunday Gospel will vary according to the year – as it is Year C this year, we will hear Luke’s account.  On Good Friday we always hear the Passion in the Gospel of John.  The close proximity of the reading of the texts allows us to spot both the similarities and the differences in the accounts of Christ’s Passion.  For example, was Jesus questioned before the Sanhedrin formally at night (Mk & Mt) or informally in the morning (Lk) or not at all (Jn)? 

The fact that there are differences should not alarm us, however, provided that we recognise that the texts are Gospels, and not simply historical accounts.  The evangelists were writing Gospels – messages of salvation, for proclamation.  So the message has theological value: its content reflects the message of salvation through Jesus Christ.  To that extent the evangelists took the historical elements of Christ’s suffering and death, and presented them in such a way that the theology would clearly shine through.  This is not the account of the death of a common criminal; this is the account of the death of our Saviour, and the account is given to lead us to faith in Christ.  This was the primary concern for the evangelists, and it should be ours, rather than in some conflicting detail in the story.

It is now suggested that Mark’s Gospel was written before the others.  Indeed, one scholar describes it as a “passion narrative with a long introduction” (W. Kummel). Matthew and Luke draw on Mark and so are quite similar.  John’s Gospel, however, has the greatest degree of difference (50%), as we shall see in the last session.  Each evangelist presents facets of Christ. In Mark and Matthew, Christ’s suffering is emphasised, in keeping with Jesus’ repeated statements that the Son of Man must suffer and so enter into glory, and that, likewise, anyone who wants to be his disciple must suffer, taking up their cross daily.  As a result, there is a strong overtone of mockery, victimisation and seeming failure, in these passion accounts.  We will look briefly at the theology of the Passion Narratives over the course of these 3 sessions.  We will begin with Mark’s account.

The Passion of Christ according to Mark

Early on in Mark’s Gospel we are told that Christ is in danger. When Jesus is just beginning his ministry in Galilee we read that the Pharisees and Herodians are already plotting to kill him (Mk 3:6).  Jesus is aware that he is in danger, as he predicts his own death (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34).  Despite these predictions, his disciples fail to understand.  The tension mounts when Christ cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, and the priests and scribes then plot to destroy him (11:17-18). When a woman anoints him, he declares that she is anointing his body for burial (14:3-9). Christ recognises the weakness of his disciples, which leads to betrayal and abandonment (all will scatter 14:27).  It is with Peter’s promise of fidelity, and Christ’s declaration that he will betray him three times, that Mark’s Passion begins in earnest.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ is “sorrowful, even to death,” (14:34) and prays that the cup might pass from him, yet he accepts the will of the Father.  When he is arrested, all abandon him. Mark highlights the abandonment by identifying someone who runs away naked.  The scholar Raymond Brown observes that the first disciples left everything to follow Christ.  Now the last disciple “ultimately leaves everything to get away from him”. 1

The trial before the Sanhedrin reveals Jesus not only as understanding himself as the Messiah, but also the Son of Man, who will come with the clouds of heaven, heralding the end of time (cf. Daniel)  So Jesus’ understanding of Messiah is not simply some kind of Davidic prince.  He is divine.  It is Jesus’ claim of divinity that enrages the high priest.  Christ is also silent at points and is spat upon and struck.  This description would remind the reader of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah (53:7, 50:6).

In the case of Jesus’ Roman trial we might think that Pilate is being presented in a benign way, while the Jews are portrayed in a much more hostile manner.  However, Pilate’s question “why, what harm has he done?” quickly leads to Pilate handing Christ over.  Once again, Jesus has no one to defend him.  Both trials end in mockery, with Christ being struck and spat upon.  After the first trial, Jesus receives the mockery of a prophet; in the second trial Jesus is mocked as a king.

Mark’s account of the crucifixion is the shortest, but every detail counts.  Jesus is mocked three times, first by passers-by, then by the chief priests and scribes, and then by the criminal being crucified with him.  Finally at the ninth hour Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Eloi, Eloi could be confused with Eli, Eli, referring to Elijah).  The veil of the temple is torn – Jesus has died – his own temple has been destroyed.  He has been mocked as a false prophet, but now finally he is recognised as God’s Son: “In truth this man was a son of God.”

Comparative study – The Agony in the Garden

After the last supper and the singing of psalms, Jesus and his disciples cross the Kedron Valley (John) to the Mount of Olives.  Jesus predicts that the disciples will be “scandalised” (lose faith), and that they (the sheep) will leave him (the shepherd) fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 13:7 (Mk 14:27, Mt 26:31). Yet after his resurrection Jesus will go before them to Galilee (Mk 14:28; Mt 26;32 – compare to the angelic words at the resurrection: Mk 16:7, Mt 28:7).  Pope Benedict points out that to “go before” is “a typical expression to apply to a shepherd.”2 Galilee is significant in that it is the place where the disciples originally joined Jesus.  He gathered them together as his disciples there, and after their unfaithful scattering at his scandalous passion and death, they, the sheep, will gather as his flock again after his resurrection.  Galilee becomes symbolic of renewed commitment.

Peter refuses to accept that he will lose faith in Christ – all four evangelists present Christ’s solemn prediction of Peter’s denial (Mk 14:30; Mt 26:34; Lk 24:34; Jn 13:38).  The setting for the prediction in Luke and John is the Last Supper.  The time of the cockcrow is “today”, “this very night” (Mk); “today” (Mt and Lk).  According to Jewish reckoning of time, the new day begins at sunset.

Following Peter’s lead “all” agree that they are prepared to die rather than disown Christ (Mk 31).  Compare this to Thomas encouraging the others in the Lazarous account, “Let us go too, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16).

They come to a small estate called Gethsemane [olive press] (Mk 14:32).  Matthew repeats the phrase “small estate called Gethsemane” (Mt 26:36).  Luke simply refers to the Mount of Olives (Lk 22:39).  John describes the crossing of the Kedron valley, but rather than calling it an estate or Gethsemane, he describes it as a “garden” (Jn 18:1). 

“John’s use of the word ‘garden’ is an unmistakeable reference to the story of Paradise and the Fall.  That story, he tells us, is resumed here.  It is in the ‘garden’ that Jesus is betrayed, but the garden is also the place of the resurrection: ‘In the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid’ (Jn 19:41).3

Christ’s distress: Mk: his soul is sorrowful to the point of death.  Compare to Psalm 55:5-6 “My heart was disturbed within me; and the horror of death fell upon me; fear and trembling came upon me; and terror (Greek Septuagint version: darkness) covered me.”

“Not my will, but yours be done.”  Maximus the Confessor, the great Byzantine theologian (d. 662) saw in this statement the clear indication of the two natures in Christ, existing “without confusion and without separation.” (Council of Chalcedon 451).  In other words, there is a natural, human will in Christ, as he is fully human, but it is ordered to the divine will, having been created by God.  Thus in the absence of sin, there is no conflict between human and divine will.  “In becoming attuned to the divine will, it [the human will] experiences its fulfilment, not its annihilation.” 4

Jesus encourages the disciples to stay awake – to keep watch.  Apart from keeping watch that night for his enemies, he is encouraging the disciples to keep watch against the Enemy, and to remain faithful servants (cf. eschatological parables, and 1 Pet 5:8 “Be sober and watch, for your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion walks about seeking whom he will devour.”)



1 Raymond Brown, A Crucified Christ in Holy week: essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1986), 25.

2 Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2: Holy week: from the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (London/San Francisco: CTS/Ignatius, 2011), 150-151.

3 Ibid., 149