Lectionary commentary: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, year A



A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, 21:1-11

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 50:4-7

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 22:8-9. 17-20. 23-24. R/. v. 2

A Reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 2:6-11

The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, 26:14 - 27:66

The Procession: From Ashes to Palms

From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday two purposes are the concerns of the readings from the Lectionary. First what is kept before our eyes is the person and activity of Jesus as he makes his way through suffering and death to glorious resurrection. From the day of ashes to the altar of lilies Christians walk the way. Every step taken brings attentive listeners nearer to the week of holiness, the week of betrayal, the week of death and to the first day of a new week. The story of the death comes to prayerful silence and to waiting for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to lead us to the empty tomb.

There is another theme that runs parallel to the way we walk to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. It is worth plotting the way we walk from ashes to palms. The ashes on our foreheads, as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament teach us, proclaim that we are at one with the pain of the people as well as our own. Take Mordecai, for example, when he heard what the wicked King Ahasuerus decided to murder all the Jews in his kingdom:

Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry; and he came even before the king's gate: for none might enter within the king's gate clothed with sackcloth. And in every province, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.

Esther 4:1-3

Job mourns that the hand of God has been turned against him:

God has cast me into the mire,
and I have become like dust and ashes.

Job 30:19

It is the prophets who point with utmost clarity to the meaning of ashes on Lenten foreheads:

Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Isaiah 58:4-5

The secret of Lenten ashes is to know that it must not be sign without substance. It is not for public display unless it is a challenge to the heart. The ashes are a challenge to recognise the true fast that is acceptable to the Lord:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:6

The ashes on the day of ashes demand an inspection of the soul to determine what lies within:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness shall go before you;

the glory of the
Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and
the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am’.

Isaiah 58:6-9

The ashes may wither away. But the challenge is there every day of Lent, insisting that a true fast be done.

From Ashes to Glory

To embrace the sign of the ashes is to come to the glory of the palms. The ancient liturgies in Greek and then in Latin regarded the palm branches as a symbol of life and hope, of victory and of a future. To listen to the ashes and do the fast that God prescribes is to come to the Mount of Olives with victorious palms and join in the song:

Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest.

Matthew 21:9

The palms speak of victory. The true victory is to have lived a God-inspired Lent and be fit to ascend the hill and to stand in the holy place:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,

who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Psalm 24:3-6

Psalm 24 was sung in many ancient liturgies of this holy day marking the beginning of a procession that, in our praying these holy days, will embrace the Temple, the Cross, and come to the glory of resurrection:

Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates!
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?

Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!

Psalm 24:4-10

A reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, 21:1-11

Now when they drew near to J
erusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden’.

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.

The Gospel of the

The story of the arrest, the trials, and the death of Jesus puts him in the hands of enemies. But from the Mount of Olives until the betrayal and capture in Gethsemane Jesus preaches and teaches, challenges, and is everywhere about God’s business.

The display on the Mount of Olives is a dramatic overture to all that is about to happen in Jerusalem. This is the first movement of a defining symphony. It is a movement beginning on a mountain and ending on a mountain (see Matthew 28: 16). That ending is itself a beginning. For from that mountain there will be a going out to make disciples of all the nations. But it is not a going out unaccompanied. With those going out will be the One who will be with them forever and a day.

Therefore Matthew’s first readers and hearers, who knew well the whole story, will have known that the glorious affirmation that is made on the Mount of Olives will be interrupted. But it will not be silenced for God’s will must be done. The victory and its consequences will be proclaimed on that other mountain in Galilee:

Behold! I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:20

There is good reason to spread branches and even garments on the way, good reason to sing hosannas, and to proclaim the Son of David, the Messiah from Nazareth in Galilee.

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 50:4-7

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.
But the
Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

Isaiah 50:4-7

Today’s reading from Isaiah is probably one of a collection of Servant Songs that are placed at strategic places in what is often called Second Isaiah. From chapter 40 to chapter 55 the setting has moved from the days when the prophet himself walked the earth to the disaster that happened three hundred or so years after his death, namely, the exile in Babylon. The Persian King Cyrus began his rule in 550 B.C. and he is mentioned in Isaiah 44:28 and in 45:1. So this part of the book comes from that time, a time of exile from holy Jerusalem, holy Temple, and holy Land. But the desolation of exile will end. God’s true servant will come and there will be a new start. As we enter the Week of Passion, it is imperative to listen, to pray, and to hope. We must behold the Servant of the Lord and know to what service God has bound him:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coast-lands wait for his law.

Isaiah 42:1-4

A new day will dawn over the whole of the earth. The Lord’s servant will bring God’s justice to the nations

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it.

Isaiah 42:5

I am the Lord.
I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare

Isaiah 42:6-9

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 22:8-9. 17-20. 23-24. R/. v. 2

R/. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the
Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” R/.

For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet —
I can count all my bones. R/.

hey divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid! R/.

I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the
Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! R/.

My God My God, why have you forsaken me?

Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?

Beginning in Hebrew Eli (My God), Jesus turns to prayer as he is about toyield up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). The rest of the prayer is in Aramaic: Why have you forsaken me? Perhaps the most moving word in the prayer is My. Is the dying Son abandoned by the Father to whom his prayers are always made.

Recall the prayer made in Gethsemane:

My Father,
if it be possible,
let this cup pass from me;
nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.

Matthew 26:38

Was this prayer of Son to Father unheard? Unanswered? Was filial obedience ignored and a dutiful Son abandoned? Even in the bewilderment of abandonment, for the dying Son his God remains My God.

To be sure, Psalm 22 ends in a listening Father:

For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.

Psalm 22:24

But there is much to be suffered before what must be done is done. St Paul declares that his whole gospel is this:

We preach Christ crucified.

I Corinthians 1:23

The explanation Paul provides is this:

For the foolishness of God
is wiser than
and the weakness of God
is stronger than mortals.

I Corinthians 1:25

Every generation of Christians must ponder why it is that death leads to life, that crucifixion proclaims victory, and why it is that the Father is silent until, in the noise of an earthquake, an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone (Matthew 28:2).

A Reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians, 2:6-11

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The word of the Lord.

While most scholars regard these sentences to be some kind of hymn and try to structure their translation into a poetic form, not all English versions attempt to do so. But while no effort can claim to have captured the original perfectly, it is worthwhile considering a what the poem might have looked like. As one reads these verses they certainly sound like a poem; there is a rhythm to them that is recognisable even to an unmusical ear. This is how a renowned English scholar presented these sentences in his outstanding commentary on Paul’s letter:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to deatheven death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

What is glorious and utterly frightening about this poem written before Paul had set foot in Philippi is that it provides an identity of Jesus and demands that all Christians adopt that very same identity. How deep must our mediation be on this demand:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus!

The re-ordering of life as “the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27) demands is to become as Christ. If the gospel is to be brought to life in a community of saints (1:1), then that community must be transformed into the likeness of Christ. The process of becoming must begin with an emptying: rivalry, conceit, self-interest, and the like must be cast out.Everyone who listens to the voice of Paul must be absorbed in the interests of others. Above all, humility demands that one makes way for the well-bing of others. But Paul requires more, much more, from those whom he is pleased to name “saints in Christ Jesus” (1:1). What he demands is that his beloved Christians in Philippi, a community he founded (see Acts 16:11-15), be conformed to the very mind of Christ. What is demanded is an identity change. The model for this emptying of self in order to become what God demands is Christ Jesus.

The Divesting

First there must be total humility that strips away all claims to glory or praise. Look to Jesus who though he is,

in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant (slave),
being made in human likeness.

Though Christ Jesus shared God’s very nature, he did not walk the world with divine, imperious strides. Not only did he come into this world “in human likeness”, more than that, he emptied himself of all grandeur and came among humanity as a slave. Too often the Greek word δοûλος (doulos, slave) is translated as “servant. Most “servants” in the world of Jesus were slaves and when the word occurs in the Bible, unless the context demands otherwise, it should be translated in conformity with the kind of world where there were many more slaves that free people. In the very first sentence of this letter, Paul describes himself and Timothy his co-worker as “slaves of Christ Jesus”.

The Destiny

This coming into the world as a slave underlines his total obedience to God the Father. His obedience brought him face to face with the destiny of every human being: death. The obedience of the Son was total:

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death
even death on a cross!

But the story did not end with death on a cross. For God was watching, determined that humanity would come to realise that death is not the final victor. Crosses are turned into crowns:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father!

The emptiness of humanity will be filled with the fullness of God. The victory of God over all that is evil is total. The sting of death will not last forever. The more that Christian communities walk the path of Jesus, the path of slave-like service, so much the more shall “you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). A transformation will take place and the more God-like the world will become.The Philippian hymn is a song of emptying in order that the world may be filled with the fullness of God.

The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew, 26:14 - 27:66

Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare 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 at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples. ’” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover.

When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful and began to say to
him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of 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 not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.”

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away 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 before you to Galilee.” Peter answered him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same.

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.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And 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 again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great 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; seize him.”
And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut 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 should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus 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 man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three
days. ’” And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, 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 robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?”

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And 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 too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the rooster crowed. And Peter
remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the rooster 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 took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into 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 it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter's field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me.”

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he
gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you:
Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 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 shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be
on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. 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 garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are
the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God. ’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And 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, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took
place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom 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 also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance 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 how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise. ’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will 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 and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard

The account of the passion and resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 26:1 - 28:20) is the longest single narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. The second longest is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 - 7:29). The Sermon opens the public life of Jesus with a statement of intent: to establish on earth the kingdom of heaven. The terms and conditions of that kingdom, the divine principles and programmes by which it is established, are revealed to crowds and to disciples, and, of course, to all readers and hearers of this Gospel. God’s terms, as it were, for a world of justice and peace are laid out for all to know and understand. The practical living of them is evident in every word and action that brings Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee to Jerusalem in Judea and to all that happens in that city.

But there are two points of clarification that must be borne in mind properly to understand the gospel of God as pronounced by Matthew. First, the death of Jesus does not come as a surprise. Apart from the hostility of authoritative voices, we have the witness of Jesus himself as to his fate in the Holy City:

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.

Matthew 16:21-23
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

Matthew 17:22-23

And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.

Matthew 20:17-19

It is essential to attend to the details in each of these quotations and, above all else, not to miss the last in each: the third day.

To miss the third day is to miss the point. We have here not a tragedy, not an enemy victory. What we have is a triumph, a comprehensive victory of the will of God over the all that is not of God. The death of the Son is not a surprise but a fulfilment of all that has gone before. It is a vindication of the words of the Sermon on the Mount and the definitive assertion that the kingdom will come to earth exactly as heaven determines.

If the death of Jesus is not a surprise, neither is it a temporary hindrance to what God is determined to do for our world. In fact, this very death is at the very heart of God’s will. As Jesus himself declares as the plot against him thickens,

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 should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so.

Matthew 26:52-54

Those who take up the sword perish by the sword. That is not God’s way and so is not Jesus’ way. What will triumph is the will of God and determination of Jesus to meet that will’s demands. The obedient Son of the Father is committed to drinking the cup the Father offers him.

Even when the crowds with swords and clubs came out to seize him, they are confronted not with a sword but with the word:

At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Matthew 26:55-56

The Scriptures, the very treasure-house of God’s determined words, have sent the Son to this time, to this, place, and for this purpose, as Joseph was told,

… to save his people from their sins.

Matthew 1:21

Of course, why it must be this way, we do not know. If we believe in the Blessed Trinity, we will surely find it difficult to understand how it is possible that Father and Spirit are unaware of the suffering of the Son, to such an extent that, the Son’s cry to them is this:

My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

Matthew 27:26

The one who dies is the abandoned Son. Why does the Father not intervene? Why does the beloved Son die with the loud but unheard cry?

There is no knowing the mind of God in all this. We cannot penetrate the recesses of eternal purposes as to why it had to be this way. What we cling to is the determination of Jesus to do what the Father demands:

… the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many ( = all).

Matthew 20:28

Of course, the days of Holy Week are days of sorrow. But they must never conceal the destiny of those days and the victory won on a very bloody battlefield.

We hope beyond what we understand:

… we know that for those who love God all things work together for good …

Rom 8.28

We have faith that informs and transforms our darkness and despair:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counsellor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him
are all things.
To him be glory forever.

Romans 11:33-36

And we know, too, that we are, through what is done in these holy days of this most holy of weeks, rooted and grounded in love:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.