“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34).
As the Great Fast draws to a close, we turn our eyes to Jerusalem where the Lord will undergo His life-giving passion and death for us. He had spoken repeatedly of the suffering He would endure but, as the Gospel records, His disciples “did not understand this saying and were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32).
When Jesus first spoke of the sufferings awaiting Him, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him” (Mark 8:32). By the time recorded in this Sunday’s Gospel selection, the disciples understood the thereat posed by Jesus’ enemies and “they were afraid” (Mark 10:32). In John 10 we read that Jesus’ foes “…sought again to seize Him, but He escaped out of their hand. And He went away again beyond the Jordan… and there He stayed” (John 10:39-40).
Still the disciples did not fully comprehend what would happen. At this stage they still saw the Kingdom of God as being “of this world” and were concerned about their own status in this Kingdom as they understood it. They envisioned Jesus restoring Israel’s freedom from the Romans and securing an independent state for God’s people. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, wanted to be Jesus’ principal aides, at His right and left hands in His “glory.” But Jesus’ glory would be the glory of sacrifice, on the cross, and others were destined to be at His right and left hand there.
Why Go to Jerusalem?
The practice of spending the great feasts of the Jews – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – in Jerusalem was based on the precept in the Book of Exodus: “Offer a sacrifice to Me three times each year. Keep the festival of Matzos [Passover]… the reaping festival [Shavuot]… the harvest festival [Sukkot]… Three times each year, every male among you must appear before God the Lord” (Exodus 23:14-17). Since sacrifices were only performed in the temple people would regularly visit Jerusalem on these feasts.
The Gospels record several visits by the Lord to Jerusalem for these feasts, the first being when He was twelve years old (cf., [reference-pericope]Luke 2:41-51[/reference-pericope]). This visit, however, would be a climactic one, culminating in His death and resurrection. The version of the Mosaic commandment in the book of Deuteronomy adds a note: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God … and they shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). In His Incarnation Christ received the gift of His human nature – He would now give it back to the Father on the cross. But God, who would not allow the death of Abraham’s son Isaac (cf., [cite-pericope]Genesis 18[/cite-pericope]) would not permit His own Son to remain in the grave, but raised Him up on the third day.
The Road Leads through Bethany
About one-and-a-half miles east of Jerusalem lay the village of Bethany (today’s al- ‘Azariya), the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. St. John’s Gospel tells us in detail how Jesus was informed that Lazarus was sick. “This sickness is not unto death,” He answered, “but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany Lazarus was already dead for four days.
The dramatic story of the raising of Lazarus from the grave is celebrated in Byzantine Churches on the first day of the Great Week of Christ’s passion, Lazarus Saturday. A day of resurrection, we observe it as a Sunday with the appropriate resurrectional prayers and chants. The resuscitation of Lazarus was the Lord’s greatest miracle so far, but would be but a prelude to His own resurrection which we celebrate on Pascha.
The Gospel says that Jesus retuned to Bethany and, while they were at table, Mary anointed Him with costly ointment. When Judas questioned this act of extravagance, Jesus reproved him, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). The next day, the Gospel tells us, Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!”
The Church rearranges these events in its Great Week observance. It celebrates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem the day after Lazarus Saturday, stressing the connection of Christ’s exuberant reception in Jerusalem with the raising of Lazarus. It defers the memorial of the anointing to the Wednesday of Great Week, the day that we are anointed in preparation for sharing in Christ’s passion.
Another Trip to Jerusalem
On this last Sunday of the Great Fast the Church also remembers another trip to Jerusalem: one that occurred some 300 years after Christ. According to the life written by St. Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventh century, Mary the Egyptian was a runaway teenager who drifted into a fast lifestyle in Alexandria living in part on the proceeds of the sexual favors she dispensed.
When she was 29 Mary attached herself to a group going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She went, not out of piety, but to meet others devoted to the same lifestyle. According to Sophronios, she never lacked for companions both on the journey and when she arrived in the Holy City.
One day, curiosity prompted her to follow some pilgrims to the Anastasis, the church build over Christ’s tomb. She found herself unable to enter, resisted by an unseen force. Believing that this was because of her wild way of life, she was struck with remorse. She prayed before an icon of the Theotokos in the courtyard, asking for forgiveness and vowing to abandon the world and its pleasures. Returning to the church door she found herself now able to enter.
Returning to give thanks before the icon, Mary heard a voice promising, “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest/ true peace.” After confessing and receiving Communion, she went into the desert where she remained a hermit for the rest of her life.
The image of this extraordinary repentance and commitment to asceticism is held up to the Church as an encouragement to enter wholeheartedly into the remainder of the Fast and the Great Week which follows.
You joyfully visited the holy places, nourished by virtue on the path of salvation, rapidly traveling along the road of holiness. Crossing the streams of the Jordan and dwelling in the wilderness like the Baptist you tamed the rebelliousness of the flesh, calming the wild nature of the passions, O venerable Mother Mary, by your holy way of life. (Vespers)