We begin on Sunday the week that we appropriately call Holy Week, when our Lord Jesus, the Holy Son of God, comes to Jerusalem where he is first hailed as the Son of David, and the Prophet and then is tried as a criminal in a sham trial orchestrated by the Jewish leaders, only to be scourged and crucified. For the Jewish leaders of his time, it was just to get rid of a trouble maker. But, as I hope you have come to learn, this was all part of God’s plan. Jesus died for our sins. He died as the sacrificial offering to a merciful God who wants to reconcile us with himself. As you will read in my reflections in the Parish Bulletin for this Sunday, this is not just a memorial of these salvific events that occurred 2,000 years ago but is our participation in God’s redemptive action. As we grasp the idea that Jesus was both victimized and invincible, we understand more fully how he was truly the revelation of God’s way of being. When we reflect on Jesus as the revelation of God’s unceasing love, our own notions of sin and punishment and forgiveness will begin to mirror God’s mercy. Then our lives will be capable of offering the world what it most needs: a living image of Jesus, the revelation of God’s infinite, unconditional love.
Our celebration begins with the blessing of the palms which is accompanied by a reading from Matthew:21:1-11. Our gospel reading will also be from Matthew so I invite you to recall the audience of this gospel: Jews. So, look for the places where the gospel writer indicates that Jesus is, indeed, the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies; proof that he is who he claims to be – the Messiah.
1 When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,
2 saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me.
An ass tethered, and a colt with her: to understand the significance of these details, let’s look at 1 Kings 1:33, where we see Solomon is proclaimed king of Israel and rides a mule on his way to being anointed, and Zechariah 9:9, where the prophet foretells a king who comes riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (note footnote). These two scriptural passages explain why Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Other passages in the Hebrew scripture (i.e. Gn 49:11; Jgs 5:10, 10:4) also speak of the role of a donkey in proclaiming a leader. Mk 11:1-11 and Lk 19:28-38 speak only of a colt; remember, their audience is not Jewish so they would not be familiar with Hebrew scripture. As we shall see in a moment, Matthew, like Jn 12:15, actually quotes Zec. 9:9, again to assure his audience that Jesus is, indeed, the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies.
3 And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.”
4 This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled:
5 “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
Say to daughter Zion: cf. Is 62:11; Zec 9:9
the foal of a beast of burden: Matthew adds this line to indicate that Jesus came to serve us, not as a warrior king who would ride in on a stallion rather than a donkey.
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them.
7 They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them.
8 The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road.
9 The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”
Hosanna to the son of David: Again, Matthew is showing that Jesus is fulfilling the ancient prophecies. In 2 Samuel 7:12 – 16, we hear Nathan prophesy to King David that God will raise up offspring after him to establish his royal throne forever.
10 And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”
11 And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee: sadly, the crowds only recognize him as a prophet, from Nazareth. In fact, he comes from Bethlehem, the city of the house of David. Those familiar with the Hebrew scripture would catch this and understand. Remember, when Jesus is born in Bethlehem, Matthew’s gospel recalls the prophecy in Micah 5:1 that speaks of a ruler who will shepherd Israel. Already, we’re seeing Jesus portrayed as the fulfillment of God’s promises found throughout the Old Testament, Hebrew scripture.
Now, we come to the readings at Mass. The first two readings – one from Isaiah and the other from Philippians – that are part of the Liturgy of the Word on Palm Sunday are the same every year. The passage that we will hear this Sunday from Isaiah comprises a portion of the prophet Isaiah’s third of four Servant-of-the-Lord oracles. In Isaiah 50:4-9 the Servant speaks; in Isaiah 50:10-11 God reproves the people for not following the Servant.
Isaiah 50: 4 – 7
4 The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them. Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;
Morning after morning: Notice that the prophet listens to God over and over again – morning after morning. It’s not a single occurrence but the result of listening to God repeatedly. We need to do this, too, in order to hear God well.
5 And I have not rebelled, have not turned back.
I have not rebelled, have not turned back: Unlike Jonah, Jeremiah and even Moses, the Servant does not refuse the divine vocation. Recognizing that rejection of this was really rejection of God, the Servant is willing to suffer with God.
6 I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
Plucked my beard: a grave insult, since the beard was a sign of age and wisdom.
7 The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced: the prophet is confident that his suffering is not a sign of God’s abandonment. Rather, he is made strong in conviction with the knowledge that God is his help.
Philippians 2:6 -11
We hear from Paul’s letter to the Philippians this Sunday. It prepares us so well for the reading of the Passion, so let’s examine it carefully. Many scripture scholars believe that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn. The short rhythmic lines fall into two parts, Phil 2:6-8 where the subject of every verb is Christ, and Phil 2:9-11 where the subject is God. The general pattern is thus of Christ’s humiliation – first by becoming a human – indeed, a slave – and then by dying, and then exaltation, adoration by the universe and new title: Lord. More precise analyses propose a division into six three-line stanzas (Phil 2:6; 7abc, 7d-8, 9, 10, 11) or into three stanzas (Phil 2:6-7ab, 7cd-8, 9-11). Phrases such as even death on a cross (Phil 2:8c) are considered by some to be additions (by Paul) to the hymn, as are Phil 2:10c, 11c.
For our purposes this weekend, this passage prepares us for the drama of the Gospel. But, it’s important to read the first five verses of this chapter to understand the original purpose: an admonition to have the same attitude as Christ. So, let’s read the first five verses before we read the verses that we will hear on Sunday. This will help us realize that we are to be like Christ (read vv. 1-5).
Now, let’s examine the verses we will hear on Sunday.
6 [Christ Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
though he was in the form of God: Either a reference to Christ’s preexistence and those aspects of divinity that he was willing to give up in order to serve in human form, or to what the man Jesus refused to grasp at to attain divinity. Many see an allusion to the Genesis story: unlike Adam, Jesus, though . . . in the form of God (Genesis 1:26-27), did not reach out for equality with God, in contrast with the first Adam in Genesis 3:5-6.
7 Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,
emptied himself: In becoming man, Jesus divested himself of the privilege of divine glory. He did not empty himself of divinity, but of the status of glory to which he had a right and which would be restored at his exaltation.
Taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness: or “. . . taking the form of a slave. Coming in human likeness, and found human in appearance.” While it is common to take Phil 2:6, 7 as dealing with Christ’s preexistence and Phil 2:8 with his incarnate life, so that lines Phil 2:7b, 7c are parallel, it is also possible to interpret so as to exclude any reference to preexistence (see the note on Phil 2:6) and to take Phil 2:6-8 as presenting two parallel stanzas about Jesus’ human state (Phil 2:6-7b; 7cd-8); in the latter alternative, coming in human likeness begins the second stanza and parallels 6a to some extent.
8 he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
he humbled himself: There may be reflected here language about the servant of the Lord, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 especially Isaiah 53:12.
even death on a cross: the lowest point of Jesus’ humiliation. Not only did he die, but he died as a common criminal. This phrase, probably added by Paul, expresses the point farthest removed from his celestial and glorious status.
9 Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
God greatly exalted him: literally, “has superexalted him, raised him to the loftiest heights.”
the name: The name: “Lord” (Phil 2:11), revealing the true nature of the one who is named.
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
Every knee should bend . . . every tongue confess: cf. Isaiah 45:23. A reference to the three levels in the universe, according to ancient thought, “heaven, earth, under the earth,” has been inserted, indicating that Jesus will be adored by the entire universe.
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus Christ is Lord: a common early Christian acclamation; cf 1 Cor 12:3; Romans 10:9. But a doxology to God the Father is not overlooked here (Phil 2:11c) in the final version of the hymn.
to the glory of God the Father: Jesus’ occupying the heavenly throne does not threaten the Father. Rather, the honor given to him will bring honor to the Father.
Matthew 26:14 – 27:66
This Sunday, we will hear Matthew’s account of the passion. Matthew’s passion narrative resembles that of Mark but has its own emphasis. As with Luke’s account, it relies heavily on Mark’s gospel and scripture scholars see no evidence that Matthew used another source for his account.
14 Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests
Iscariot: this additional name may mean “the man from Kerioth” an unknown town in Israel.
15 and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” They paid him,
Thirty pieces of silver: the price of the betrayal is found only in Matthew. It is derived from Zec 11:12 where it is the wages paid to the rejected shepherd, a cheap price (Zec 11:13). That amount is also the compensation paid to one whose slave has been gored by an ox (Ex 21:32).
16 and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.
Preparations for the Passover.
17 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?
Feast of Unleavened Bread: As you will see in the footnote for Mk 14:1, there is a clear connection between two significant aspects of this feast. The Passover commemorated Israel’s redemption from slavery and their departure from Egypt to the Promised Land. It began with the slaughter of the Passover Lamb in the temple. The eating of unleavened bread is also part of the feast. Jesus, the Lamb of God, offers himself in the form of unleavened bread.
18 He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”’”
19 The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered, and prepared the Passover.
20 When it was evening, he reclined at table with the Twelve.
21 And while they were eating, he said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
22 Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, “Surely it is not I, Lord?”
23 He said in reply, “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me.
24 The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
25 Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” He answered, “You have said so.”
The Lord’s Supper.
26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
“Take and eat; this is my body.”: This startling proclamation is found in all three synoptic gospels, 1 Corinthians and Acts. Using the principal of multiple attestation, we firmly believe these to be our Lord’s words and take them literally.
27 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you,
28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.
29 I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.”
30 Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Peter’s Denial Foretold.
31 Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed’;
32 but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.”
33 Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.”
34 Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
35 Peter said to him, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the disciples spoke likewise.
The Agony in the Garden.
36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
37 He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress.
38 Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.”
39 He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
40 When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?
41 Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!”
43 Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open.
44 He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again.
45 Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners.
46 Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.”
The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus.
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs, who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people.
48 His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying, “The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.”
49 Immediately he went over to Jesus and said, “Hail, Rabbi!” and he kissed him.
50 Jesus answered him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.
51 And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus put his hand to his sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear.
52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
53 Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels?
54 But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?”
55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to seize me? Day after day I sat teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me.
56 But all this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
Jesus Before the Sanhedrin.
57 Those who had arrested Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled.
58 Peter was following him at a distance as far as the high priest’s courtyard, and going inside he sat down with the servants to see the outcome.
59 The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death,
60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward
61 who stated, “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three days rebuild it.’”
62 The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?”
63 But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
64 Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’”
65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy;
66 what is your opinion?” They said in reply, “He deserves to die!”
67 Then they spat in his face and struck him, while some slapped him,
68 saying, “Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is it that struck you?”
Peter’s Denial of Jesus.
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. One of the maids came over to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.”
70 But he denied it in front of everyone, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about!”
71 As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.”
72 Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man!”
73 A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter, “Surely you too are one of them; even your speech gives you away.”
74 At that he began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately a cock crowed.
75 Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.
1 When it was morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.
2 They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.
The Death of Judas.
3 Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,
4 saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.”
5 Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.
6 The chief priests gathered up the money, but said, “It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood.”
7 After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.
8 That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood.
9 Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet,* “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of a man with a price on his head, a price set by some of the Israelites,
10 and they paid it out for the potter’s field just as the Lord had commanded me.”
Jesus Questioned by Pilate.
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor, and he questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.”
12 And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer.
13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?”
14 But he did not answer him one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
The Sentence of Death.
15 Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished.
16 And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called [Jesus] Barabbas.
17 So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, [Jesus] Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?”
18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over.
19 While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”
20 The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus.
21 The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!”
22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Messiah?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”
23 But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.”
25 And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged,* he handed him over to be crucified.
Mockery by the Soldiers.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him.
28 They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him.
29 Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
30 They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head.
31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him.
The Way of the Cross.
32 As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.
33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull),
34 they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink.
35 After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots;
36 then they sat down and kept watch over him there.
37 And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.
38 Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left.
39 Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads
40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, [and] come down from the cross!”
41 Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said,
42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.
43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
44 The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way.
The Death of Jesus.
45 From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
47 Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “This one is calling for Elijah.”
48 Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink.
49 But the rest said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.”
50 But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.
51 And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split,
52 tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
53 And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
54 The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
55 There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him.
56 Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
The Burial of Jesus.
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus.
58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over.
59 Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen
60 and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed.
61 But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.
The Guard at the Tomb.
62 The next day, the one following the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate
63 and said, “Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raised up.’
64 Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ This last imposture would be worse than the first.”
65 Pilate said to them, “The guard is yours; go secure it as best you can.”
66 So they went and secured the tomb by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.
When we allow Isaiah and Paul and Jesus’ own words to interpret his passion, we get the picture of Jesus as the expression of God’s unfailing love, a love rejected but never overcome.