Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) – 5 April 2020
Lectionary Readings: Isa 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Matt 26:14-27:66
Theme: Passion and Passover

Every Holy Week, we are challenged by the reading of two different narratives of the Passion within a short period. Today, we hear Matthew’s account and on Good Friday we shall read, as we do each year, John’s account. They are very different, both in content and outlook. Today, in the drama of Palm Sunday, we see enacted the paradox of the cross: Jesus enters Jerusalem to great acclamation but, “humble … on a donkey”, a symbol of peace, not war, as suggested by the prophet Zechariah whom Matthew quotes. The acclamations of the “great crowds” are of Jesus as “son of David”, echoing the opening words of Matthew’s Gospel, “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham”. In his narrative of the Passion, Matthew introduces the different sections with the name “Jesus”which, we recall from the infancy stories, means “the one who is to save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Matthew’s Gospel and Passion narrative are permeated by the theology of Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the just person who will “proclaim justice to the Gentiles” (Matt 12:18) at the cost of his own life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls “blessed” “those who are persecuted in the cause of right”, and is condemned even though Pilate’s wife warns Pilate not to have anything to do with this “righteous man” (27:19). Judas repents when he realizes he has betrayed “innocent blood” (27:4). The Gospel of Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels, written in the mid-80s CE for the new community of Christians who had accepted Jesus as the Christ, which explains Matthew’s stern criticism of the Jewish community of the time, led by the Pharisees, who had survived the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. Both communities were in survival mode. This background of mutual hostility helps to account for the shocking saying in Matthew’s Passion narrative which has been the cause of much Christian anti-Semitism: “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:26). Pope Emeritus Benedict’s creative explanation of these words in his book on Holy Week is a significant contribution to our understanding of them in a positive, not negative way.

The figure in the passage from Isaiah is the anonymous “Servant”, whose attitude in the face of the grievous assaults, insults and shame inflicted upon him is to pursue his God-given task with unshakable steadfastness and courage. Matthew has this passage in mind when he says, “… they spat in his face and hit him with their fists” (26:67), going on to recall Psalm 22 with the words, “He put his trust in God; now let God rescue him” (27:43). Other echoes of this psalm are seen when Matthew says, “… they shared out his clothing by casting lots” (27:36) and, of course, the psalm’s opening words, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”are on Jesus’ lips on the cross. In this way, Matthew, as do the other evangelists, links what happened to Jesus with passages from the Jewish scriptures, with which, of course, Jesus himself was so familiar.

The reading from Philippians is a hymn used in the early Christian liturgy, confessing belief in Jesus as Redeemer and Lord. The first part describes the Incarnation as a humiliation and a voluntary sharing in the limitations of humankind, setting the death of Jesus in the total context of his human life. The second part describes his exaltation by God, ending with the confession that Jesus is Lord.

The New Testament explains the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus with reference to the Jewish festival of Passover, which remembers the slavery in and deliverance from Egypt. Jesus celebrated it yearly, just our Jewish friends and neighbors still do. In the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we see the parallels between the Passover and our own Christian Eucharist. Both commemorate a historical event of suffering and deliverance. Both look toward the future when the definitive redemption of the whole universe will be accomplished. So let us remember the Jewish people as they celebrate Passover this week – probably virtually during these days of fighting the corona virus – just as we will be celebrating virtually our Easter – and pray that our new dialogue with them, begun during the Second Vatican Council, will continue to flourish.

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