The Hour of the Son of Man
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion | Fr Bruno Clifton gives a Scripturally-rich entrée into the Great Week of our salvation.
‘Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs’ – Richard II Act 3, Scene 2
The shadow of the cross always falls across Jesus’s life. His ‘hour’ is always lingering on the side-lines, threatening to arrive. St John’s gospel in particular does not allow us to escape the cross’s shadow even at moments of hope, in signs of salvation.
‘Woman, what is that to you or me?’ Jesus asks his mother before his Cana miracle of the kingdom’s new wine, ‘my hour is not yet come’ (John 2:4).
‘The hour is coming and now is,’ Jesus encourages the Samaritan woman, ‘when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:21).
And Jesus cautions the sceptical Jews, ‘the hour is coming and now is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live’ (John 5:25).
The wedding feast of the new creation (Isa 25:6); the dawn of God’s new covenant (Jer 31:31; Tob 14:6); the resurrection of the dead (2 Macc 12:43), all meet in this hour of Jesus. An hour for which we are told to stay awake ‘for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn…’ (Mark 13:35).
Today we begin the Great Week, when the course of our liturgical year has come to focus upon the hour of the Son of Man, which is why we begin it with the story of the Passion.
In St Mark’s account, arrival of this ‘hour’ seems like a nightmare of darkness and chaos. Jesus and his disciples have just celebrated the Passover and in the night leave the upper room for the Mount of Olives. This journey of perhaps a mile takes them outside the city, down below the Temple through the Kidron valley (John 18:1); a valley of graves. At this Passover time, the full moon shines through the night mists, eerily illuminating whitewashed tombs (Matt 23:27). What a reminder of the looming ‘hour.’
And so, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, Jesus and his disciples await this hour in a moonlit garden overlooking a valley full of bones…
‘Son of Man,’ (we hear whispered on the night breeze) ‘can these bones live…?’ (Ezek 37:3).
At this dark moment, Jesus prays that the Son of Man’s hour might pass him by (Mark 14:35): ‘and a sudden fear came over him and great distress’ (14:33).
But this is also the hour his disciples are called to stay awake. Jesus had taught, ‘Keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come’ (Mark 13:33) and all through this Lent we have been reminded that the day of salvation, the favourable time, has dawned in Jesus (2 Cor 6:1-2).
And yet we fall asleep when the time arrives. And the hour of the Son of Man comes ‘like a thief in the night’ (1 Thess 5:2; cf. Mark 14:48).
‘Simon,’ (it could be any of us) ‘are you asleep?’ (Mark 14:37).
Jesus singling out Simon Peter reminds us of the disciple’s protest of loyalty only a few minutes earlier on the moonlit walk to Gethsemane…and of Jesus’s response: ‘before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times’ (Mark 14:30). Peter does not see that the master has come—in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, at dawn—and was handed over to sinners.
‘Had you not the strength to keep awake one hour?’ (Mark 14:37).
Had we not the strength to keep our Lenten penances; to ‘share our bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor’ (Isa 58:7); to fast from sin and seek the mercy of God these forty days?
The hour when ‘the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners’ (Mark 14:41) is the hour that we create and yet ignore through our slothful sin. And so, when we hear the Passion once more today we cannot take the role of apologetic bystander, but of disciples of Jesus who fell asleep and more… ‘All of them deserted him and fled’ (14:50).
‘But I am a worm and no man, scorned by men despised by the people’ (Ps 22:6) is the psalm Jesus recalls from the cross (Mark 15:34).
Where is there hope in this Passion according to Mark? We have to go back to the beginning in that upper room before the little band headed out into the cool night.
‘This is my body… this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-24). Here is the strengthening of the flesh that willing spirits desire so that they may follow their Lord.
So today let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs and realize that Jesus’s epitaph has been transformed into a living title of our salvation.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the entry into Jerusalem, carved on a 4th-century paleo-Christian sarcophagus, exhibited in the Vatican Museum.