Palm (Passion) Sunday – Year A
The Scripture readings for this Sunday, and the Holy Week following, naturally focus on the arrest of Jesus, the fake trials, his torture and final crucifixion. Attention today is specifically placed on what is traditionally called his ‘triumphal entry into Jerusalem’, which is a strange title because the word ‘triumphal’ and its connotations have almost nothing to do with Jesus and all that he stood for.
The first reading from Second Isaiah is the third song of the Suffering Servant. It has long been interpreted by Christians as referring to Jesus, but in its own historical context it can be the words of the anonymous prophet or the reflection of the collective exile community of Israel. The language is reminiscent of the poetry of Jeremiah and unlike the people of Israel this anonymous prophet is more than ready to listen to the Lord and sing out his message. Like Jeremiah he knows he will be persecuted and forced to undergo suffering. The poet is saying that people, and especially the anxious and the depressed, will find strength and reassurance in the prophet’s words.
The divine Presence is no less with me because I cannot get to church
The message we can take from this, particularly in our time of crisis, is that God’s presence and encouragement can easily be missed if we are so fixed on our personal situation that we have stopped listening.
The divine Presence, the Shekhinah, is no less with me because I cannot get to church or take a physical part in the Eucharist.
Now is a good time to express eucharistia, i.e. gratitude for what I have. A family gathered for a meal or a game of Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble are being what God intended, namely, being family in loving relationship, giving each other a lift, seeing the good in the other, passing on the gift of presence and encouragement. We should not underestimate the power of these realities.
The first few verses of the responsorial psalm are generally well-known but the whole spiritual journey in three movements is not well understood. The psalm begins with a cry, a lament and then gives details of suffering and a sense of abandonment and finally ends with joy, relief and gratitude at the deliverance provided by a caring God. The gospel writers interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus through this poem as they portrayed the innocent Jesus suffering at the hands of wicked men and then being vindicated by God through the resurrection. We risk overlooking this human journey if we focus only on the initial cry of abandonment.
This passage obviously fits in with the passion motif, but its main thrust lies in highlighting Jesus’ gift of himself. He emptied himself and went to death for our sake. However, Paul’s intention here is to urge the Philippian community to imitate Jesus by adopting his mindset and taking on the role of servant. We could recall Jesus’ action in washing the feet of his friends and then take after him by being towel and basin people, serving one another with gifts of presence, encouragement, kindness, understanding, generosity. I believe the best way to understand this passage is to forget the theology and focus on the self-giving.
There is sound psychology in the gift of self. We give ourselves a lift when we imitate Christ to reach out and make somebody’s day through a smile, a kind word, a phone call or some equivalent gesture of connection.
Matthew 26:14 – 27:66
The Passion account this year is from Matthew’s gospel and it is clear that the writer is placing a heavy accent on the abuse of power, something that was widespread and unbridled in first-century Palestine. But hasn’t it always flourished in human society? Matthew reminds his community that they too will undergo suffering, possible contempt and ridicule for their allegiance to Jesus Christ. Don’t be surprised at how low power, prestige and wealth can drive decent people who give in to self-serving behaviour. However, all the gospels emphasise Jesus’ effort to get his followers to appreciate and practice his reversal of values whereby the first in human terms will be last and the last in human eyes will be first in God’s eyes.
Matthew also shows how the devotion of the women in the Passion Narrative puts to shame the male disciples who folded in cowardice for fear of their own lives. The women demonstrated an unwavering support for the one whose charisma they deeply appreciated and, more strikingly, they proved their readiness to pay the price of authentic discipleship that can endure despite opposition, hardship and even the threat of death.
Deep gratitude rewires our brain and enables us to get outside ourselves I recall reading a reflection on the Passion of Jesus and the writer was saying that we are being asked in Holy Week to walk with humility in the footsteps of the crucified one. My internal response was ‘yes and no’. We need to go a good bit further than that by ‘doing’ humility. If we reflect on Jesus’ gift of himself, we do well to be overcome with gratitude. Deep gratitude rewires our brain and enables us to get outside ourselves and have the mind of Christ, as Paul put it to the Philippians in our second reading. Humility does not come from simply making a resolution to be humble and then setting out to be humble. The problem with this is that the effort is still about ‘me’. Genuine humility comes when I get outside ‘me’ and turn the focus on others. As a result, I won’t be thinking less of myself, but I will be thinking of myself less. In this context I can’t help thinking of our health workers whose work for others is a lot more than a job. In the face of the Coronavirus they are the frontline troops whose sights are fixed on the individuals under their care. Their heart and mind are dedicated not to a cause or a profession but to real human beings whose anxiety must surely be reduced by the realisation that they are not being abandoned.
This is humility in action. When I get beyond ‘me’ and give generously of myself to others I am proactively exercising humility.
And what’s more I am getting to know myself better with the realisation that humility comes with authentic self-knowledge.
Two episodes in this Passion Narrative that are unique to Matthew are the fate of Judas and Pilate’s act of washing his hands and declaring his innocence of the blood of Jesus. Matthew is using both cases to throw the blame for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion onto the chief priests and in the same stroke exonerate Rome.
In the case of Judas, Matthew highlights the heinous nature of his betrayal by stating that he was one of the Twelve who performed a gesture of friendship and devotion to betray Jesus. How ironic! An Eastern audience would be particularly sensitive to the depth of pain and duplicity in this act. The message taken is that being a disciple is no guarantee of permanent commitment. We all have weak spots, but while Matthew emphasises the guilt attached to betraying ‘innocent blood’ he unambiguously exposes the responsibility of the chief priests and elders who were behind it all.
Describing Pilate washing his hands of the execution of Jesus, Matthew is letting him off the hook. And yet Pilate is as much on trial here as Jesus and he comes off as a pawn manipulated by malicious little men wielding ‘religious’ power. Matthew has chosen instead to show political expediency win over justice. This is definitely not the historical Pilate who ordered the slaughter of the Galilean insurgents and was called to Rome in 36 AD to answer charges of cruelty and oppression. To protect his community and fellow Christians from Roman backlash, Matthew has presented a more favourable, if not historically accurate portrait of Pilate.
What I find particularly mind-blowing when meditating on the suffering of Jesus is that I have been forgiven. Here is a person who was tortured and horrendously nailed to a cross, undergoing unbelievable physical, psychological and sexual abuse. We don’t always think of the gouging done to Jesus’ psyche as his body was brutalised and then hung naked to be mocked and shamed. And above all this is his readiness to forgive, which means in the Old English of the verb ‘forgive’, to give over, to give away. Here is a generosity that cannot be measured. We cannot forgive unless we are giving something away, letting go.
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. - St Paul 2 Corinthians 9:6
You often say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving.’ The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
- Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness. - Dalai Lama
One good way to save face is to keep the lower part of it shut. Always tell the truth. That way you don’t have to remember what you said. It’s better to ask stupid questions than to make stupid mistakes.