The evangelist Mark has provided a profound way into the passion narrative.
We previously covered the Palm Sunday entry into the city of Jerusalem in 11:1-10, and the anointing of Jesus for burial in 14:3-11. In between these texts, Jesus is challenging the religious authorities in the temple (11:11-12:44) and teaching outside the temple to teach about its imminent destruction (13:1-31) and his own death (13:32-37). The chapter concludes with a timetable in which the future is imminent in the passion narrative that unfolds in chapters 14 and 15.
Jesus’ warning call to “beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (13:33) leads into the events of the passion. Jesus teaches with a parable of a man who has gone on a journey and left his household servants in charge. The doorkeeper is charged with being on watch for the master of the house to come, “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” (13:35). Jesus’ admonition calls for the servant not to be found sleeping: “And what I say to you (twelve disciples) I say to all (readers and hearers of the Gospel of Mark): Keep awake” (13:37).
The passion narrative now unfolds through the four watches of the night: (1) evening (14:17-31); (2) midnight (14:32-65); (3) cockcrow (14:66-72); (4) dawn (15:1-15). Mark’s passion narrative takes us from (1) the evening Passover meal with the disciples; (2) the midnight hours of prayer in Gethsemane, betrayal, arrest, and hearing before the chief priests; (3) Peter’s threefold denial and the crowing (Greek: kaleo, calling) of the cock; (4) the handing over of Jesus to Pilate at dawn.
Our text begins with preparation for the evening meal: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed” (14:12). All the imagery of this meal is present and its significance in marking the deliverance of the captive Israelites in the Exodus. There is no mistaking what this meal will signify for the life of the new community centered in the deliverance of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Details of the preparation and setting for the meal are described: “So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal” (14:12-16). The first watch of the night is noted: “When it was evening, he came with the twelve” (14:17). The ominous words of Jesus around which they gather at table begin the evening: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me” (14:18). The drama unfolds as the disciples in distress address Jesus, “Surely, not I?” (14:19). Jesus describes the action that will reveal the betrayer, and it could be anyone at this point: “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me” (14:20).
During the meal Jesus takes bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to the disciples with the words, “Take; this is my body” (14:22). Jesus also takes the cup with the words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (14:23-25). With these words, what could the disciples be thinking?
The meal concludes with the singing of the Hallel, and the walk to the Mount of Olives. Here Jesus notes they will all fall away and recalls prophetic words which identify the betrayal of the Son of Man: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (14:27 see Zechariah 13:7). The shepherd will be struck down in crucifixion, but the promise of resurrection will gather the sheep: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (14:28). Jesus’ words to Peter conclude on this ominous note: “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times” (14:29-30). Peter vehemently denies the words of Jesus: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (14:31). The disciples expressing the same affirm Peter’s words.
The midnight hours of the second watch (14:32-65) are upon Jesus and the disciples as they go to Gethsemane. Taking Peter, James and John with him, Jesus becomes “distressed and anguished,” saying to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and keep awake” (14:32-34). Going on by himself, Jesus throws himself on the ground praying that this hour might pass from him: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (14:35-36).
Returning to the three disciples, Jesus finds them asleep. The three-fold call to “keep awake” at the close of the apocalyptic chapter (13:33, 35, 37), is now repeated in the Gethsemane story (14:34, 37, 38). Jesus goes away a second and third time to pray to the Father and each time returns to find them asleep: “Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See my betrayer is at hand” (14:41-42).
The word “immediately” inaugurates the entrance into the betrayal scene, indicating the immediacy of the act of betrayal. Judas emerges out of the shadows with a crowd armed with “swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” (14:43). Judas had given them a sign and goes up to Jesus “immediately,” identifying him as “Rabbi!” with a kiss of betrayal. Jesus is taken captive and arrested (14:44-46).
Jesus rebukes the return of violence in the drawing of a sword, and identifies that his arrest is not that of a bandit or insurrectionist, but of one who taught daily in the temple when there was no attempt to arrest him. However, even now scripture is fulfilled: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away” (Isaiah 53:8a). Finally, the evangelist concludes: “All of them deserted him and fled” (14:47-50).
The next two watches of the night take us beyond the definition of the assigned Maundy Thursday text. The third watch, cockcrow, takes place with Peter’s denial in the courtyard of the high priest (14:66-72). The fourth watch, dawn, takes place when Jesus is handed over by the religious leaders to Pilate (15:1-15).