PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION
The readings for Passion Sunday revolve around the two meanings of the word “passion.” Paul’s letter to the Philippians illustrates how these meanings intertwine. Christ felt such passion (love) for humanity that he took on our human condition and endured the most extreme passion (suffering) we can imagine as the servant of God.
FIRST READING: Isaiah 50: 4-7
This reading is the third of four “suffering servant songs” found in the book of Isaiah. As the early Christians read these passages, they saw in them images of Jesus, the suffering servant of God.
In Isaiah’s mind, the servant spoken about may have been an individual or the nation of Israel. The servant is entrusted with a special mission on behalf of God’s people. The servant is, first of all, portrayed as a disciple, a listener to God’s word. Morning after morning, the Lord “opens” the ear of the servant that he might hear God’s word. Unlike the Israelites in the desert, the servant is not rebellious, nor does he turn back. Because of his faithfulness to God, the servant undergoes all kinds of humiliations and sufferings. (Looking at the servant as Israel, the sufferings might point to her time in exile.) In the midst of his sufferings, the servant displays great trust in God. “The Lord is my help, therefore, I will not be disgraced.” The phrase “set my face like flint” refers to the servant’s determination to be faithful to God.
SECOND READING: Philippians 2: 6-11
Writing from prison, Paul addressed the community of Philippi, a people with proud and independent ways, which often led to bickering and disharmony amongst them. Paul admonishes the community to set aside their bickering ways and to live in harmony. He holds up before them as a model the “attitude of Christ,” who “emptied himself” and became like a “slave” (or like the servant in the first reading). Because Christ “emptied” himself and because of his humility, God “raised” him up and “exalted” him. Like the servant in the first reading, God came to the help of Jesus, the servant, par excellence and gave him the name “Lord,” a name given only to God in the Old Testament.
GOSPEL: The Passion according to Matthew
Scripture scholars point out that each of the four accounts of the Passion of Christ have their own unique characteristics. We will look at three of the unique characteristics of Matthew’ Gospel.
* Fulfillment of the Scriptures Matthew’s gospel was written primarily for a Jewish audience who had embraced Christianity. Matthew goes to great pains to show that the events spoken about in his gospel, including his passion narrative, happened not because of some outside forces, but to fulfill what was foretold in their Hebrew scriptures to fulfill God’s plan.
The passion story begins with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas for 30 pieces of silver. This event is alluded to in Zechariah 11:12-13. When Jesus was arrested, Matthew says: “all this happened to fulfill the prophecies in scripture.”(26:56) immediately after this statement, Matthew tells us: “all the disciples left him and fled”, thus fulfilling Jesus’ earlier prediction (26:31) as well as the prophecy of Zechariah “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered” . During his trial, Jesus behavior and the mistreatment heaped upon him recalled the experiences of the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah, (see today’s first reading). On the cross, Jesus prayed with the words of Psalm 22-today’s psalm.
* Identity of Jesus. The recognition of Jesus’ true identity plays an important role in Matthew’s gospel and passion narrative.
At the last supper, the disciples refer to him as “Lord” . Recognition of Jesus also comes from his opponents. This irony should not be overlooked. In their scorn, Jesus’ mockers acknowledge him as the Christ, Pilate calls him “King of the Jews”, as do the soldiers . His taunters speak of him as the “Son of God” .
* Obedient and Faithful Son of God. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the faithful Israelite who enjoys a unique relationship with his Father. Judas is mentioned more as a means of contrast: he is the “dark side of discipleship.” In Matthew’s Passion, Jesus is strong, peaceful and faithful despite all the infidelity, hatred, violence and cowardice around him. He especially shows himself to be a faithful friend to his Apostles. He forgives them for their weaknesses and failures, most of all, he remains faithful to his Father. The seeming despair cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” should not be interpreted as Jesus feeling abandoned by God. The cry, which is taken from Psalm 22, is a lament psalm, which “lays bare the tortured body and spirit of the believer who complains to God and cries out for relief, but never has any doubt that he will be saved and vindicated.”
Matthew contrasts Jesus’ faithfulness to the unfaithfulness of his Apostles and his own people who betray him, reject him, beat him jeer at him, deny him, fall asleep on him and abandon him in his greatest hour of need. Of course, all do not fail him. Simon helps him to carry his cross and the women are faithful, even if “at a distance.” Jesus is presented as the suffering servant, obedient unto death, even death on a cross (second reading).
On this Passion Sunday, the emphasis in on the Cross of Christ, this is lifted high. For our sake, Jesus “empties” himself. To be filled with God, we must first do the work of self-empting: empty ourselves of the false self, which is proud, jealous, greedy, rude, unforgiving, dishonest, self-sufficient, etc.
All disciples come to this same dark night when our faith in the Lord is shaken. There may be earthquakes and explicit denials, troubling dreams and profitable betrayals. Or we may simply fall asleep when our presence is needful, or run away when called upon to risk a stand. We may join with the crowds and call for Barabbas over Jesus, even shout for the blood of the innocent. We may be the ones who jeer and mock, or simply the ones who say nothing in the face of injustice.
The night when our faith is shaken is the bleakest night our soul can know. But the disciples survive it to become the apostles, turning the shame of desertion into the courage of martyrdom. The only one who is not transformed is the one who condemned himself for his failure, fearing God’s justice and forgetting God’s mercy.