Procession of the Palms: Mark 11:1-10
Reading 1: Isaiah 50:4-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Reading 2: Philippians 2:6-11
Gospel: Mark 14:1-15:47
Many months ago, when I was first invited to contribute a Sunday scripture reflection for this week, I felt a familiar mix of honor, responsibility, and vainglory. “Palm Sunday,” I thought. “That’s about as close as it gets to being asked to do Easter!”
This was long before the anxiety and panic began to set in. Because it’s my first year as director of CTU’s Doctor of Ministry program, when I first agreed to write this reflection, I was oblivious to the fact that, in addition to its due date in late Lent, it was due in another “liturgical” season entirely: the season of the multiple sacred rites of passage known as thesis proposal and final thesis presentation review boards. NCAA basketball fans will understand when I say that, for me, “March Madness” has taken on a whole new meaning.
Needless to say, the anxiety and panic only increased when I finally stopped to think that each one of the readings for Palm Sunday are Side A greatest Christological hits on the Christian biblical LP: an excerpt from the third “Servant Song” of Second Isaiah; the famous Pauline elaboration of the “hymn” to Christ’s humility in Philippians 2; and — as if this weren’t enough — the oldest canonical passion narrative of Mark 14-15.
“What could I possibly say?” Deep breath. “Where would I even start?” Another deep breath — and this time, a brief prayer.
By God’s grace, I finally found my foothold. It is the two verses of the Markan passion narrative which are arguably among the most curious, controversial, and at the same time, least significant: namely, Mark 14:51-52.
“And a certain young man was following with [Jesus], clothed with a linen cloth over his nakedness; and they seize him. But he, having left behind the linen cloth, fled naked.”
Although it’s a bit different from that of the lectionary, this is the translation of the late and truly great Fr. Raymond E. Brown, SS. He was the scholar and mentor in whose course on the passion narratives I sat rapt as a young graduate student studying at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York, during a spring semester in the late 1980s.
To be honest, I was drawn to these particular verses for two main reasons.
One was because, as I read and reread the Markan account, I couldn’t help but recall my paper for Fr. Brown’s passion narratives course. It focused on the cinematically sensational drama surrounding an allusion to these verses in a passage from the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark — a passage that another professor of mine, Morton Smith, claimed to have discovered in an 18th-century copy a manuscript that both Smith and Brown presumed to be authentically attributed to Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 CE).
The other, more important reason I was drawn to these verses was because a huge part of the controversy surrounding them — a controversy with no demonstrable roots in the canonical text and almost entirely sparked by what Clement appears to say in his letter — had been the implication that the young man (Gk. neaniskos) in question may not only have been one of Jesus’s disciples, but his lover as well.
You see, at about the same time I was looking for my foothold in the immensely rich readings of this Sunday’s lectionary, I was mulling over the content of the recent responsum from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to the question as to whether or not the Church “has the power” to offer “the blessing to the unions of persons of the same sex.” I was imagining, listening to, and — to a great extent — feeling the pain of my LGBTQ siblings as they were once again confronted with the language of “sin” and disorder to refer to their loving intimate relationships, relationships which the responsum describes, quoting the words of the Holy Father himself, as not being “in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
What I remember from what Fr. Brown taught me so many years ago — and what I was reminded of in my recent research into the interpretation of the rather enigmatic and historically provocative verses at Mark 14:51-52 — is that there is a meaningful connection between the anxiety and panic that crept up on me once I had to set about the business of writing this scripture reflection; the emotional and spiritual state of the somewhat mysterious “young man” at the focus of these verses; and what we stand to lose when, as aspiring disciples of Christ, we allow ourselves to act out of a sense of panic and fear rather than out of the very humility of Christ about which St. Paul so beautifully sings in the second reading.
Since Fr. Brown published his masterful two-volume commentary on the passion narratives (The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave, 1993), there have been at least two in-depth scholarly examinations of Mark 14:51-52 that use extensive and careful research into classical Greek literature in ways that ultimately support Fr. Brown’s “suggested interpretation” that the young man who fled naked is an archetype of what Jesus was talking about in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:38) when he warned the disciples to “Keep on watching and praying lest you enter into trial (Gk. peirasmos).”
Evidently, there is a well-attested trope in classical Greek literature whereby panic and fear is symbolized by acting in such ill-considered haste that one is left stripped of one’s clothing and thus one’s dignity. The symbolism of the “linen cloth” (Gk. sindōn) that the young man of Mark. 14 “leaves behind” is a prime example of this trope, especially because it is a fine and probably quite expensive garment that is lost in a context of overwhelming anxiety.
Placing Mark 14:51-52 within the broader literary context of this classical trope clearly supports Brown’s contention that the Evangelist deploys this scene in order to depict, ever so succinctly and starkly, that any fear- saturated attempt to follow Christ through the inevitable “trials” of discipleship is fated to be a “miserable failure.” At the risk of paraphrasing a mythical Jedi sage, the lesson is simple: fear leads to panic, and panic leads to losing it all, including and especially what is most precious.
To what extent have we allowed our various vocations to discipleship to become saturated with fear such that we act out of panic rather than humility and love? And what do we stand to lose if we do so?
These are questions that we must ask ourselves as followers of Christ, or simply as human beings who aspire to be agents of transformative love and compassion in a world wounded by hatred, division, and indifference. These are questions we cannot and must not avoid — whether ours are among the most prominent and powerful of voices of institutional leadership like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or Catholic Theological Union, or whether our voices are simply those of the faithful “rank and file.”
A wise and holy colleague of mine has recently been teaching me a great deal about the corrosive and ultimately fatal effects on apostolic zeal of overwhelming anxiety and settling into a reactive rather than a proactive modus vivendi. Rather than inviting us into greater harmony with the “mind of Christ” Paul so eloquently describes in Philippians 2, fear and panic tempt us into situations where we abandon those we are called to love more deeply, leaving us naked and fleeing with nothing left, not even the clothes on our back.
As we begin this Holy Week, may we heed the warning of Christ to those who were with him in Gethsemane. Let us pray that God grant us the wisdom, courage, and strength to resist the fear and reactivity that can so easily strip away our agency as disciples, and that so often results in more brokenness and sin rather than less. And as we do so, let us refuse to be dragged down the slippery slope of surrender to the forces of haste and panic, and instead commit ourselves to the long, hard, and steady climb to the summit of true resurrection faith.
Scott C. Alexander, PhD