Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Today we recall with reverence how totally Jesus shared in the depths of human suffering. But by enduring his passion in a spirit of loving trust in God the Father, he paid the price for all human sinfulness, and won for us the gift of salvation. In his Servant Song Isaiah declares his trust that God never abandons those who risk all for a cause they believes in, regardless of scorn or rejection.
Is 50:4-7: Words of the Suffering Servant: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I know that I shall not be put to shame!”
Ph 2:5-11: The self-emptying (kenosis) of God’s loving servant, who embraced a sacrificial death in order to save his people.
Mt 26:14—27:66: Matthew’s sober Passion Narrative, with his repeated noting of the fulfilment of Scripture in the events of the Passion of Jesus.
– that by remembering his patient suffering, our faithfulness to Jesus Christ may be deepened, and our hearts be more inspired to defend justice and human rights.
– that the abuse of political and legal power, as seen in the passion of Jesus, may not be allowed to continue in our own time.
– that the work of those who struggle on behalf of justice for the poor and disadvantaged, may be supported and richly blessed.
– that by contemplating our Lord’s Passion, we may have a deeper sense of his love for us, and entrust our lives fully into his loving care.
No Stranger to Hardship (Patrick Rogers)
“He was oppressed and was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7). For the followers of Christ, this Isaiah text evokes a response deep down within us, seeing how they apply to God’s only beloved Son, and how he died for all of us. In the words of St Peter, “without having seen him you have come to believe in him, and so you are filled already with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described” (1 Pet 1:8). Without this sincere love of Christ, we are no true followers of his. We cannot say we fully love him, until we appreciate what he suffered for us.
Today, having heard the Passion narrative there is no real necessity to retrace in great detail the events there described. But it is well to bear in mind that Christ was no stranger to hardship, privation and suffering, long before that final day of his life. “Being in the form of God,” as St Paul says, from the moment he came on earth, Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are (Phil 2:6f). He, the most high God, suffered the hardships of the poor, at times not even having a place to lay his head. He endured hunger and thirst, and after long days surrounded by crowds seeking a cure, he often spent whole nights at prayer in the hills. Despite his compassion for all who came to him, he met with hatred and rejection, in particular from Pharisees and priests, who planned to have him killed. How this rejection and hatred must have grieved him. King Lear knew “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, to have a thankless child;” and how must Jesus have felt at being rejected by the people he had chosen, above all others.
So terrible was the inner struggle of Jesus as he faced his death, that in the garden his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. Another bitter pill was the knowledge that one of his own circle of twelve would betray him, that most of the others would leave him, and that even the loyal St Peter would repeatedly swear he had never met him. But most terrible of all was his feeling of being abandoned by God, his inner spirit shrouded in a darkness that reflected the murky darkness that enveloped Calvary as the end drew near. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So the face cruelly disfigured was the face of the Son of God. The forehead streaming with blood, the hands and feet nailed to the Cross, the body lacerated with scourges, the side pierced with a lance, these were the forehead, the hands and feet, the sacred body, the side of the eternal Word, made visible in Jesus. Why such suffering? We can only say with Isaiah, “It was for our transgressions he was smitten, for our sins he was brought low. On him lay the punishment that brings us healing, through his wounds we are made whole” (53:5ff). God, our Father, grant that your Son’s suffering for us may not be in vain.
Matthew’s Passion Narrative
The reading of the Passion narrative in today’s Mass is one of the high-points of this week’s liturgy; it carries its own impact independently of any comment or homily, i.e. providing it is well-rehearsed and presented. It is particularly important that it be well done today since many members of our congregations will not be at the Good Friday Liturgy. Given the length of the gospel and its innate effectiveness, the homily today should not be long and should take just one aspect of the narrative for reflection.
Today’s Gospel is called the “Passion,” a word derived from the Latin that draws attention to the suffering that Jesus endured during the last day of his life on earth. So, one possibility for us today is to offer some reflections on the meaning of Christ’s sufferings, on what they have to say about human suffering in general. One of the things to be noted is the lack of detail about the individual sufferings of Jesus. We are told the basic facts of course, i.e. concerning the violence of his arrest, imprisonment, some abuse and mockery (all the usual degradation of the condemned man in the world of the time) and the actual crucifixion. There is however no indulgence in the gory details in all their physical dimensions and perhaps we should take a leaf out of the evangelists” book in this regard. What is highlighted throughout is the human and personal struggle to be faithful in the face of apparent futility and the victory of evil.
We see this especially in the Gethsemane scene. Jesus’ agonia (“struggle’) about the chalice of his father will. His mission seems to be about to end in failure – failure to convert his own people, failure to have faithful disciples around him. As he suffers, they sleep; and when they finally wake up to what is about to happen to their Master they desert him. Jesus has to face this failure and the apparent futility of all his life’s struggle to bring in the Kingdom of God. We may get the impression that the futility is ~overcome as Jesus accepts the Father’s will “Yet not my will but yours be done” and as he faces the future with determined resolution, saying to the disciples “Rise, let us be going.” This is undoubtedly Jesus’ continuing acceptance of the Father’s will, his acceptance against all the appearances that the futility he experiences her is somehow transcended by the divine mystery. So he goes to face the friend who betrays him, the leaders who betray their people, the official who betrays justice. He accepts the continuing struggle to the end, yet he receives no consolation in his acceptance, the futility remains, as finally on the cross he feels abandoned not only by man but by God “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And so we are told “he yielded up his Spirit” and in giving it up for the Father he has given this Spirit of his life to all men who come to him in faith.
In trying to make sense of what Jesus endured, what we summarise under the title of “the cross,” we must not jump too quickly to the resurrection to solve the problem of its apparent futility. The resurrection, of course, cannot be left out of the picture, but if we jump to it too quickly there is the danger of seeing it simply as a “deus ex machina.” The fact is that the resurrection is the other side of the cross, the cross which has its own contribution to make the redemption of broken man.
In the above examination of the sufferings of Jesus I have drawn particular attention to the theme of futility because this is the aspect of suffering that touches us all. Both for those who suffer physical or mental affliction and for the fortunate who don’t, the problem of meaning always arises – “What is the purpose of it?” “Why me?” For the sufferer it is no abstract philosophical question but often the burden of an apparently useless life. Have we any answer to these questions? People have tried to find the answer in personal guilt, that it’s punishment for wrong-doing in their past or in that of their society. Such a theory can never cover all the cases as the Book of Job demonstrates. No doubt the wrong-doer may be brought back to his senses by some trial but what of the innocent? Here it does not seem possible to find a solution in the past or in the person themselves, here we can find nothing to explain away the problem, we can only grasp for a solution in the future, a purpose beyond the person themselves, but for this to work the person themselves has to accept this purpose.
Here we have the notion of vicarious suffering such as is described in Isaiah’s “Song of the Suffering Servant,” a poem that influenced early Christian understanding of the Passion of Christ. We return to the problem of guilt. There is the mystery of evil in the world and somehow it is possible for the innocent to voluntarily atone for the guilty. Christ was the innocent, the just man who freely accepted the pain and failure of the cross to atone “for the many.” It is only the mystery of his love which could accept such futility. So at the end what we believe is that only incomprehensible love has anything to say to the sufferer. It does not offer easy explanations but a challenging purpose. For the one who accepts the love of Christ in faith it is possible to accept suffering as a way of sharing in his love for others and of sharing in his work of redemption. If such a purpose can be accepted then the futility is in fact overcome.
A Complete Let-Down (Liam Swords)
Jesus Christ was not the first man to die for a cause, nor the last. He was not the first or the last innocent man to be put to death. He was not the only one ever crucified. There were on that same day two others. Even as regards physical pain it is at least possible that others have suffered as much. What then makes the passion so different? And it is undeniably different.
The gospel account is roughly about two newspaper columns long, and even though I’ve read it, or heard it read hundreds of times, it still affects me. I wonder why? I think the answer lies in the details – the completely human and utterly shabby circumstances in which Christ died.
Take for example the behaviour of his friends. Was there ever such a complete let-down? Judas, one of the twelve, especially chosen. One can feel the hurt, almost the unbelief in Christ’s gentle words, “Friend, why are you here? Judas would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?’
One could almost stomach the betrayal of Judas had the other eleven remained faithful. No way. One short line tells their “And they all forsook him and fled.” And Peter – surely not Peter. Think of all those miracles Christ worked, specially for him. He raised the dead child to life, set him walking on water, was transfigured before him. Only a few short hours be fore, Peter had boasted, “Even though all abandon you, I will follow you to prison and to death.” – but at a distance, a safe distance. And when he was cornered a jibe or two from a servant girl looking for notice, Peter the Rock disintegrated. “He began to curse and to swear that he knew not the man.” That must really have hurt Jesus. “And Jesus turning looked at Peter and Peter went out and wept bitterly.” And these were his friends, his only friends. The people he lived with and loved. The people he showered his miracles on and shared his secrets with. And not one of them lifted a finger for him.
What has this story to do with us? It is the story of our salvation. But it is more, much more. It is the story of our lives. There isn’t a part in the whole sordid script that we, you and I, wouldn’t play to perfection. Peter in his pride and Peter in his fall and, hopefully, Peter in his repentance too. We’d fit in perfectly with the disciples who fled at the first sign of danger, or with Caiaphas and the high priests, with their self-righteousness and eagerness to reform others while ignoring themselves, or with Pilate in his abuse of authority, or with the mob with its thirst for excitement and blood. And Judas? Let’s face it – there’s a Judas in all of us. There are times and situations in all our lives when Jesus could easily say to us as he said to Judas, “Friend, why are you here?” The truth is, it was only his friends who could really have crucified him so.
First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-7
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
Second Reading: Ph 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Gospel: Mt 26:14—27:66
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.”
Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of ilver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over.
While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.'” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and ha provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.