March 25, Sunday of the Passion

Note: Holy Week preaching in 2018 consisted of short teaching homilies.

There is so much we could examine. Mark speaks volumes in few words, and we read a lot of words from Mark today. I must speak about the guy in the white towel. You knew I was gonna. I refer to him enough, and now he is in the story. As early as the late Second Century, Mark’s readers wrote about this man being a baptismal symbol. Mark himself has prepared us to think this way. He’s given us a lot of symbols and ideas and these all start coming together in the Passion narrative. When he introduced John the Baptizer, he dwelt on John’s clothes. Later he tells us of Jesus meeting a man possessed by thousands of demons, who Jesus immerses in water (they baptized by full immersion in those days), and then the formerly possessed guy is found clothed. Eh? New clothes at baptism? At Transfiguration Mark repeats the words the Father spoke at Jesus’ baptism, and then Mark comments on Jesus’ baptismal clothing. Finally, Jesus refers to his passion and death as his “baptism,” and asks his disciples if they can be baptized with his baptism.

Mark means for us to think of the passion baptismally. Mark means for us to think of the man in a linen cloth as a baptismal candidate, and that linen cloth suddenly torn away as a baptismal garment removed the way you would remove your clothes before getting in the tub. The young man in the towel has waded into baptismal life and, ah…it isn’t pretty. The man he wants to follow is seized by an armed mob, and the others who were following the man have fled. Following Jesus on his own is not going to happen for this anonymous naked guy. Being naked around a lynch mob is, well, it’s vulnerable. Mark leaves this guy as a loose end; we must finish the story to see if we learn his fate. That means he is still here. He cannot go back to what he was before. (He’s naked outdoors on a holiday weekend.) He cannot go forward without someone’s help.

He is in a liminal space. Liminal space and time is the name ritual studies gives to those places and occasions at which one is not yet what one will be yet is no longer what one was. At a wedding, as the wedding party enters nobody’s married, yet; the couple is no longer just an item. Depending on the words used in the ritual it may be hard to determine at what moment in the ritual this is officially a marriage. We know when the couple leaves the room something has happened. Holy Week immerses us in a similarly liminal space and time. We live in the reality that things clearly are not yet what God promises in the resurrection, yet things are not what they were before Jesus lived and died for us.

In this Holy Week, we ponder liminality. We ponder a world in which humans have heard the good news of God in Jesus Christ and continue dealing death to one another sometimes in ways not far removed from Jesus’ death. We ponder a world in which none of us can reasonably say Jesus has had no impact on our lives, yet none of us can reasonably say that things are precisely the way God wants them. We wade into baptismal life, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the story, to the symbols, to the devastating truth, and to the overwhelming grace. We ponder what we have tried to do without God, and what God offers to do for us and through us. We ponder how we have wound up alongside this poor guy in the towel, and we ponder how God may be planning to continue our story.