Apr 5, 2020: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord (A)

Procession with Palms – Matthew 21:1-11

When Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem
and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives,
Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately you will find an ass tethered,
and a colt with her.
Untie them and bring them here to me.
And if anyone should say anything to you, reply,
‘The master has need of them.’
Then he will send them at once.”
This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet
might be fulfilled:
“Say to daughter Zion,
‘Behold, your king comes to you,
meek and riding on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them.
They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them,
and he sat upon them.
The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,
while others cut branches from the trees
and strewed them on the road.
The crowds preceding him and those following
kept crying out and saying:
“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 shaken and asked, “Who is this?”
And the crowds replied,
“This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Palm Sunday is celebrated by the blessing and distribution of palm branches, recalling the palm branches the crowd scattered in front of Christ during his well-known entry into Jerusalem.

In previous visits to Jerusalem, Jesus did not want to be recognized as the Messiah and so avoided the enthusiasm of the crowd. Now he accepts their acclaim and even implies that it is justified, by entering the city in the style of a peace-loving king.

Jesus’ public ministry is coming to a close: he has completed his mission, he has preached and worked miracles, he has revealed himself as God the Father wished he should. Now in this triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he shows that he is the Messiah.

When Jesus and the disciples drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives,

Bethphage was a village east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives was a place long associated with the appearance of the Messiah (Zechariah 14:4).

Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me.

This is a striking variation from the accounts of Mark and John where only a donkey is mentioned.

And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, ‘The master has need of them.’ Then he will send them at once.”

Kings had the right to press privately owned animals into their service whenever the situation seemed to warrant such action.

Note that Jesus is in complete control here. He knows in advance what is available, what can be done, and what should be said. He has foreknowledge and authority.

This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

Jesus is revealing himself as the Messiah, a fact that Matthew stresses by quoting the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9.

In this prophecy, the future messianic king is described as humble, or meek. This was the only type of Messianic claim Jesus would publicly profess: the claim to be the Messiah who was one of the lowly. He comes on a donkey because he is a man of peace; a warrior-king would have ridden a charger (i.e., a warhorse).

The disciples went and did as Jesus had ordered them. They brought the ass and the colt and laid their cloaks over them, and he sat upon them.

The mention of both an ass and a colt in Zechariah is simply poetic parallelism, the use of two words to indicate a single animal; but note how Jesus is described as procuring and riding two animals, both an ass and a colt.

The term “colt” refers to the young of any number of animals, including the young of an ass. If the colt was as yet unbroken and therefore somehow ritually clean, mention of two animals could be a reference to the custom of bringing a parent animal along when introducing a colt to service.

However, the Church fathers have read a deeper meaning into this episode. They see the ass as a symbol of Judaism, long subject to the yoke of the Law, and the foal, on which no one has ridden, as symbolizing the Gentiles. Jesus leads both Jews and Gentiles into the Church, the new Jerusalem.

The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,

An act of deference to a king (2 Kings 9:13).

while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road.

Like the cloaks, the branches were also intended to soften the road. No palm trees grow in Jerusalem and the synoptic gospels don’t mention palm branches. The only mention of palm branches is in John’s gospel.

The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David;

“Son of David” is a Messianic title.

“Hosanna” is a Hebrew word, which was originally an appeal to God meaning “save us.” Later it was used as a shout of joy, an acclamation, meaning something akin to “Long live…”.

The people are demonstrating their enthusiasm by shouting “Long live the Son of David!”

blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.”

This phrase comes from Psalm 118:26; it is a jubilant and appreciative greeting to someone entrusted with a mission from God.

The people recognize that Jesus comes with the full authority of God.

And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, “Who is this?”

The entire city was electrified by the occasion.

And the crowds replied, “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The designation of Jesus as a prophet may refer to his ministry, or it could be an allusion to “the prophet,” one of the messianic figures of Israel’s tradition (John 1:21).

1st Reading – Isaiah 50:4-7

The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

Our first reading is from the third Servant Song of the prophet Isaiah, which tells us about the nature of this self-emptying servant.

This passage bears a strong resemblance to many of the scriptural laments; however, there is no complaint here, only a description of the sufferings that accrue from faithfully carrying out a mission assigned by God.

The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.

God has appointed the speaker as a prophet and provided him with the tools required for his task (“a well-trained tongue” and later, open ears). These gifts are given to the speaker, but they are for the benefit of the weary, to whom he ministers.

It is not clear who these weary might be or what the character of his rousing words are, but there seems to be an implication that the hearers are in some way downtrodden and that the words are words of comfort.

Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear;

The servant must first be a disciple, prayerfully receiving God’s word, before he can presume to teach others. The word is alive and fresh each day, for God opens the speaker’s ears “morning after morning.” He must be always attentive to hear the word that is given.

Note that the servant takes no credit; it is God who opens his ear, his readiness to accept God’s will is a gift of grace.

and I have not rebelled, have not turned back.

The servant does not refuse the divine vocation.

I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.

A heavy price is exacted from the speaker. Like the prophets before him (Amos 7:10-17; Micah 2:6-10; Jeremiah 20:7-18), the servant is tested by various torments. Plucking one’s beard is a particularly grave insult.

He willingly hands himself over to be beaten and shamed. He does not try to escape or defend himself; he does not recoil from his call. If he suffers in silence, it is not out of cowardice but because God helps him and makes him stronger than his persecutors.

No explanation is given as to why his prophecy should elicit such a violent response, or even who his persecutors might be. All we know is that his ministry generates this response and that he does not abandon it or take himself out of harm’s way.

Christians see the servant’s docility as a reference to Christ:

“His self-discipline and wisdom enabled him to communicate to us the knowledge of the Father. And he was obedient onto death, death on the cross; he offered his body to the blows they struck, his shoulders to the lash; and though he was wounded on the chest and on his face, he did not try to turn away and escape their violence” (Commentarii In Isaiam, 50, 4).

The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced;

Even though the prophet has been abused, he is not disgraced. The Hebrew word for “disgraced” has the same root as “buffet” in the preceding verse and provides strong contrast.

There are no grounds for the speaker to make these claims other than utter confidence in God, certainty of the authenticity of his call, and a conviction of the truth of his message. He knows he is doing God’s will.

This is remarkable because at the time, suffering was generally thought to be the result of some kind of sin. Most in his position would have interpreted his abuse as evidence that God is on the side of their persecutors.

I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.

This phrase appears frequently in prophetic preaching (Ezekiel 3:8-9; Luke 9:51)to denote steadfastness. It has special meaning here when you picture a face covered with spittle. The speaker is declaring confidence in God’s sustaining presence.

Note the speaker’s confidence is not that God will remove his burden, but that God is present and will help him carry out his call.

The suffering servant songs were not originally seen as messianic songs because no one expected the messiah to suffer. The messiah was expected to prevail over the Israelites’ political enemies. However, after Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, the early church found in the words of the suffering servant songs a way to probe the mystery of a suffering messiah. When we hear these words in the context of today’s liturgy, we hear them as referring to Jesus.

2nd Reading – Philippians 2:6-11

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those 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.

This passage has been called “The Christ Hymn” because of its distinctive qualities. It has a rhythmic character and a use of parallelism which have led to the view that Paul is quoting a hymn composed independently of his letter to the Philippians (possibly originally in Aramaic).

The hymn, which was an early profession of faith, has a basic twofold structure: verses 6-8 describe Christ’s humiliation; verses 9-11, his exaltation.

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Christ, who existed from before the creation of the world, did not cling to the divine dignity that was rightfully his. He did not use his exalted status for his own ends.

Many see an allusion to the Genesis story here: though in the form of God (Genesis 1:26-27), Jesus did not reach out for equality with God the way Adam and Eve did (see Genesis 3:5-6).

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness;

Not only did he relinquish his Godlike state, he “emptied himself.” He did not empty himself of divinity, but of the status of glory to which he had a right and which would be restored at his exaltation.

Note the contrasting references to the “form” of Jesus. He was in the form of God, but took the form of a slave.

and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,

In taking the slave-like human condition, he also took on the vulnerability and powerlessness of that station in life.

becoming obedient to death,

For a slave, obedience is the determining factor, and the extent of Christ’s obedience is striking. Compliance with God’s will in a world that is alienated from God requires that one be open to the possibility of death.

even death on a cross.

Here Paul emphasizes the ignominious nature of Jesus’ death, a death that was torturous and shameful. It was a common punishment for slaves, the nadir of human abasement. The horror and humiliation of his death demonstrate the completeness with which he emptied himself of his divinity.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

The self-denying act of Christ is matched by the active response of God. His exaltation is as glorious as his humiliation was debasing.

Note that while Christ was the subject of his self-emptying, his superexaltation is attributed directly to God. His extreme humiliation is matched by his extreme glorification.

and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

Recall that in the Jewish culture, one’s name contains the essence of the individual. God has raised Jesus’ name, his essence, above every other.

Explicit mention of the new name is held back the end of the hymn.

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

This hymn transfers to Christ the homage given to God alone (Isaiah 45:23).

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

According to ancient thought, these are the three levels of the universe. All of creation is brought under Christ’s lordship.

and every tongue confess

Another reference to Isaiah 45:23.

that Jesus Christ is Lord, 

Finally, the new name of Christ: Kyrios (Lord), which came to be substituted for YHWH in Christian copies of the Septuagint Old Testament.

to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus’ new position on the heavenly throne constitutes no rivalry to the Father, to Yahweh himself; rather, Jesus’ voluntary abasement and the homage paid to him by creation in his exalted status bring honor to the Father.

Today’s readings are meant to teach us that the cross is a central mystery of our faith. Suffering is part of every person’s life, just as it was part of Jesus’ life. However, Jesus’ suffering led to resurrection.

Through his suffering, Jesus redeemed the human race from sin. If we join Jesus in his suffering, we will also join him in his victory over death.

Gospel – Matthew 26:14-27:66

One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity
to hand him over.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
the disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Where do you want us to prepare
for you to eat the Passover?”
He said,
“Go into the city to a certain man and tell him,
‘The teacher says, my appointed time draws near;
in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.’”
The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered,
and prepared the Passover.

When it was evening,
he reclined at table with the Twelve.
And while they were eating, he said,
“Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
Deeply distressed at this,
they began to say to him one after another,
“Surely it is not I, Lord?”
He said in reply,
“He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me
is the one who will betray me.
The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him,
but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.
It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply,
“Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”
He answered, “You have said so.”

While they were eating,
Jesus took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and giving it to his disciples said,
“Take and eat; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying,
“Drink from it, all of you,
for this is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed on behalf of many
for the forgiveness of sins.
I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine
until the day when I drink it with you new
in the kingdom of my Father.”
Then, after singing a hymn,
they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them,
“This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken,
for it is written:
I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed;
but after I have been raised up,
I shall go before you to Galilee.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Though all may have their faith in you shaken,
mine will never be.”
Jesus said to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
this very night before the cock crows,
you will deny me three times.”
Peter said to him,
“Even though I should have to die with you,
I will not deny you.”
And all the disciples spoke likewise.

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane,
and he said to his disciples,
“Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee,
and began to feel sorrow and distress.
Then he said to them,
“My soul is sorrowful even to death.
Remain here and keep watch with me.”
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying,
“My Father, if it is possible,
let this cup pass from me;
yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep.
He said to Peter,
“So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?
Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test.
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again,
“My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass
without my drinking it, your will be done!”
Then he returned once more and found them asleep,
for they could not keep their eyes open.
He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time,
saying the same thing again.
Then he returned to his disciples and said to them,
“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?
Behold, the hour is at hand
when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners.
Get up, let us go.
Look, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking,
Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived,
accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs,
who had come from the chief priests and the elders
of the people.
His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying,
“The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.”
Immediately he went over to Jesus and said,
“Hail, Rabbi!” and he kissed him.
Jesus answered him,
“Friend, do what you have come for.”
Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.
And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus
put his hand to his sword, drew it,
and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear.
Then Jesus said to him,
“Put your sword back into its sheath,
for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father
and he will not provide me at this moment
with more than twelve legions of angels?
But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled
which say that it must come to pass in this way?”
At that hour Jesus said to the crowds,
“Have you come out as against a robber,
with swords and clubs to seize me?
Day after day I sat teaching in the temple area,
yet you did not arrest me.
But all this has come to pass
that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.”
Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Those who had arrested Jesus led him away
to Caiaphas the high priest,
where the scribes and the elders were assembled.
Peter was following him at a distance
as far as the high priest’s courtyard,
and going inside he sat down with the servants
to see the outcome.
The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin
kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus
in order to put him to death,
but they found none,
though many false witnesses came forward.
Finally two came forward who stated,
“This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God
and within three days rebuild it.’”
The high priest rose and addressed him,
“Have you no answer?
What are these men testifying against you?”
But Jesus was silent.
Then the high priest said to him,
“I order you to tell us under oath before the living God
whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“You have said so.
But I tell you:
From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power’
and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’”
Then the high priest tore his robes and said,
“He has blasphemed!
What further need have we of witnesses?
You have now heard the blasphemy;
what is your opinion?”
They said in reply,
“He deserves to die!”
Then they spat in his face and struck him,
while some slapped him, saying,
“Prophesy for us, Christ: who is it that struck you?”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard.
One of the maids came over to him and said,
“You too were with Jesus the Galilean.”
But he denied it in front of everyone, saying,
“I do not know what you are talking about!”
As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him
and said to those who were there,
“This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.”
Again he denied it with an oath,
“I do not know the man!”
A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter,
“Surely you too are one of them;
even your speech gives you away.”
At that he began to curse and to swear,
“I do not know the man.”
And immediately a cock crowed.
Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken:
“Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.”
He went out and began to weep bitterly.

When it was morning,
all the chief priests and the elders of the people
took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.
They bound him, led him away,
and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned,
deeply regretted what he had done.
He returned the thirty pieces of silver
to the chief priests and elders, saying,
“I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”
They said,
“What is that to us?
Look to it yourself.”
Flinging the money into the temple,
he departed and went off and hanged himself.
The chief priests gathered up the money, but said,
“It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury,
for it is the price of blood.”
After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field
as a burial place for foreigners.
That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah
the prophet,
And they took the thirty pieces of silver,
the value of a man with a price on his head,
a price set by some of the Israelites,
and they paid it out for the potter’s field
just as the Lord had commanded me.

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and he questioned him,
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus said, “You say so.”
And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders,
he made no answer.
Then Pilate said to him,
“Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?”
But he did not answer him one word,
so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now on the occasion of the feast
the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd
one prisoner whom they wished.
And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.
So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them,
“Which one do you want me to release to you,
Barabbas, or Jesus called Christ?”
For he knew that it was out of envy
that they had handed him over.
While he was still seated on the bench,
his wife sent him a message,
“Have nothing to do with that righteous man.
I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”
The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds
to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus.
The governor said to them in reply,
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?”
They answered, Barabbas!”
Pilate said to them,
“Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?”
They all said,
“Let him be crucified!”
But he said,
“Why? What evil has he done?”
They only shouted the louder,
“Let him be crucified!”
When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all,
but that a riot was breaking out instead,
he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd,
saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.
Look to it yourselves.”
And the whole people said in reply,
“His blood be upon us and upon our children.”
Then he released Barabbas to them,
but after he had Jesus scourged,
he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium
and gathered the whole cohort around him.
They stripped off his clothes
and threw a scarlet military cloak about him.
Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head,
and a reed in his right hand.
And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying,
“Hail, King of the Jews!”
They spat upon him and took the reed
and kept striking him on the head.
And when they had mocked him,
they stripped him of the cloak,
dressed him in his own clothes,
and led him off to crucify him.

As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon;
this man they pressed into service
to carry his cross.

And when they came to a place called Golgotha
­—which means Place of the Skull —,
they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall.
But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink.
After they had crucified him,
they divided his garments by casting lots;
then they sat down and kept watch over him there.
And they placed over his head the written charge against him:
This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.
Two revolutionaries were crucified with him,
one on his right and the other on his left.
Those passing by reviled him, shaking 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,
and come down from the cross!”
Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said,
“He saved others; he cannot save himself.
So he is the king of Israel!
Let him come down from the cross now,
and we will believe in him.
He trusted in God;
let him deliver him now if he wants him.
For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
The revolutionaries who were crucified with him
also kept abusing him in the same way.

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”
which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“This one is calling for Elijah.”
Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge;
he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed,
gave it to him to drink.
But the rest said,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.”
But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice,
and gave up his spirit.

Here all kneel and pause for a short time.

And behold, the veil of the sanctuary
was torn in two from top to bottom.
The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened,
and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection,
they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus
feared greatly when they saw the earthquake
and all that was happening, and they said,
“Truly, this was the Son of God!”
There were many women there, looking on from a distance,
who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to 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 himself a disciple of Jesus.
He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus;
then Pilate ordered it to be handed over.
Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen
and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock.
Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb
and departed.
But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
remained sitting there, facing the tomb.

The next day, the one following the day of preparation,
the chief priests and the Pharisees
gathered before Pilate and said,
“Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said,
‘After three days I will be raised up.’
Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day,
lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people,
‘He has been raised from the dead.’
This last imposture would be worse than the first.”
Pilate said to them,
“The guard is yours;
go, secure it as best you can.”
So they went and secured the tomb
by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.

Few things are of more benefit to a Christian than contemplation of the saving events surrounding the death of the Son of God made man. In doing so, our mind and heart will be overwhelmed to see the suffering of him who created the angels, men, heaven, and earth; who is the Lord of all creation; the Almighty who humbles himself to an extent that would be unimaginable if it had not occurred.

The suffering Jesus endures is the most eloquent proof of his love:

  • proof of his love for the Father, which seeks to atone to him for man’s incredible rebellion by the punishment inflicted on his own innocent humanity, and
  • proof of his love for mankind; he suffers what we deserve to suffer in just punishment for our sins.

As Christ himself taught, the entire Law of God and the Prophets are summed up in the divine commandment of love:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests

The name Judas is the Greek form of Judah (which in Hebrew means “praised”), a proper name frequently found both in the Old and the New Testament. Even among the Twelve there were two that bore the name, and for this reason it is usually associated with the surname Iscariot (Hebrew for “a man of Kerioth” or Carioth, which is a city of Judah (see Joshua 15:25)).

His birthplace in Judah differentiates him from the other Apostles, who were all Galileans.

and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

The gospels are unanimous in showing that Judas initiates the treachery.

They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.

It is disconcerting and sobering to realize that Judas Iscariot actually went as far as to sell the man whom he had believed to be the Messiah and who had called him to be one of the apostles.

Thirty pieces of silver (shekels) was the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32), the same value that Judas put on his master.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,

This is one of the three annual feasts for which all men were expected to come to the Temple. The city was jammed with people, many of whom rented space. The city’s normal population of 30,000 swelled to 130,000.

The feast lasted a week and a day (14 through 21 Nisan).

the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?”

The apostles knew that Jesus would keep all the ordinances of the Passover, being the faithful Jew that he was.

Passover commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt and the “passing over” of the forces of destruction when the Lord “smote the land of Egypt” on the eve of the Exodus.

Since he had no permanent home, the apostles sought guidance as to where their celebration would be held so that they could make the appropriate arrangements.

He said, “Go into the city to a certain man

Although this reference is to an unnamed person, Jesus probably gave the person’s actual name. In any event, based on what the other gospels tell us (Mark 14:13, Luke 22:10), Jesus gave the disciples enough information to enable them to find the house.

and tell him, ‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”’ The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered, and prepared the Passover. When it was evening, he reclined at table with the Twelve.

This makes it clear that no one else was present, contrary to the usual family setting of the Passover meal. Jesus will share this particular Passover with a different kind of family — those who will be instrumental in building his Body, the Church.

And while they were eating, he said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, “Surely it is not I, Lord?”

The apostles’ faith has been steadily fortified and deepened in the course of Jesus’ public ministry (see John 2:11, 6:68-69) through their contact with them and the divine grace they have been given (Matthew 16:17). At this point, they are well aware that Jesus knows their internal attitudes and how they are going to act: each asks in a concerned way whether he will prove loyal in the time ahead.

He said in reply, “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me.

Jesus knows exactly who the traitor is.

This echoes Psalm 41:10: Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me. 

The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, 

Jesus is referring to the fact that he will give himself up freely to suffering and death. In so doing, he will fulfill the will of God, as proclaimed centuries before (see Isaiah 53:7).

but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”

This condemnation of Judas’ act is the most severe of all the gospels. Although Jesus goes to his death voluntarily, this does not reduce the seriousness of Judas’ treachery.

It was not inevitable that one of his friends should betray him.

Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”

This verse is unique to Matthew and establishes a direct confrontation between the betrayer and the betrayed.

To avoid coming under the suspicion of guilt by his silence, Judas poses the same question as the others. Notice how the other apostles address Jesus as “Lord,” while Judas uses “Rabbi,” the title normally used in Matthew’s gospel by the faithless.

He answered, “You have said so.”

This is a half-affirmative. Emphasis is laid on the pronoun and the answer implies that the statement would not have been made if the question had not been asked.

This advance indication that Judas is the traitor goes unnoticed by the other apostles (cf. John 13:26-29).

While they were eating, Jesus took bread,

Judas exits and the scene pivots to the institution of the Eucharist.

This bread would have been the unleavened bread of the Passover meal, which recalls how the Israelites, in their haste to flee from Egypt, had no time to make leavened bread.

said the blessing, broke it,

The act of blessing and breaking is one word in Greek: eucharisteo.

and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

What up to this point was nothing by unleavened bread and wine, now — through the words and by the will of Jesus Christ, true God and true man — becomes the true body and true blood of the Savior.

One cannot help but recall the time Jesus previously spoke about eating his body, after the feeding of the five thousand:

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:53-58).

Then he took a cup,

The liturgy of the Passover meal requires that four cups of wine be drunk. The cup which Jesus is using here is the third cup, the cup of thanksgiving (see 1 Corinthians 10:16). This will be important later.

gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood

Jesus had also promised to give his blood to be drunk: For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (John 6:55-56).

of the covenant,

The institution of the Eucharist is the only time in the New Testament where Jesus uses the word “covenant.” Recall that covenants were sealed with the blood of the animal that was killed for the covenant offering.

However, there is no animal at this meal, which is very peculiar. The most important part of the Passover celebration was the lamb, the primary reminder of how the Passover lambs were sacrificed in Egypt so that the Israelite firstborn sons would not be killed in the tenth plague.

The sacrificial language and overtones of Jesus’ discourse tell us that the body being offered is not that of a lamb or any other animal: it is his own body being sacrificed and his own blood being poured out. Just as the Passover lamb was sacrificed in Egypt to spare the firstborn sons of Israel, so now Jesus is about to be sacrificed on the cross to spare all humanity.

The Eucharist is the new Passover of the New Covenant.

which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.

Only Matthew has this phrase. Certain Jewish sacrifices atoned for sin and guilt. The atoning death of Jesus liberates man not only from ritual sin and guilt, but from sin simply, for which there was no atonement in the Israelite sacrificial system. Isaiah 53:10 says that the suffering servant is offered as a sin sacrifice.

With these words, Matthew teaches his audience (and us) that Christ’s suffering, freely accepted in love and obedience to his Father’s will, redeemed us.

I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.”

Jesus defers drinking the fourth cup of the Passover meal, interrupting the most sacred liturgy of Jewish family life. This is very unusual for an observant Jew.

He informs the apostles that he will drink the final cup of the liturgy with them when the age of the Messiah has dawned. Then, by his resurrection, they (and we) will have been made new.

Then, after singing a hymn,

A reference to the Great Hallel (Psalms 113-118), which is recited or sung at this point in the Passover liturgy.

they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Jesus spent his days in Jerusalem preaching and teaching, but retreated to the Mount of Olives each evening. Knowing this pattern, Judas knew exactly where to tell the authorities to apprehend Jesus without a scene.

Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed’;

Jesus is quoting Zechariah 13:7.

but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.”

This prediction will be fulfilled in Matthew 28:16-20.

Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.”

Peter, usually the spokesman for the group, here speaks for himself. Peter’s excessive self-confidence will be followed by a fall more grievous than the others.

Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”

Three is the number of completion in Hebrew numerology, it will be a complete denial.

Peter said to him, “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the disciples spoke likewise.

The other disciples join Peter in affirming their loyalty.

Just as Jesus knows he is going to die and rise, he also knows that all the apostles but John will abandon him. Peter will become so afraid that he will deny Jesus three times, a fall which Jesus will allow to happen in order to teach him humility.

“Here we learn a great truth: that a man’s resolution is not sufficient unless he relies on the help of God” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily on Saint Matthew, 83).

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane,

Gethsemane was well known to be one of Jesus’ favorite places to pray. Its exact location is not known, but Saint Jerome tells us that it was at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

The name Gethsemane means “oil press.”

and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee,

He takes with him Peter, James, and John: the inner circle, the three who were present for the raising of Jarius’ daughter and at the transfiguration.

and began to feel sorrow and distress.

Here in the garden, the Son of God enters into the psychological and spiritual space of the sinner. Saint Paul wrote that Christ became sin: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

That is Christ’s mission: to bring the light and forgiveness of God into the depths of God-forsakenness.

Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. 

Both Mark and Matthew describe Jesus in true agony in the garden, giving us a glimpse of the full reality and exquisite sensitivity of his human nature.

To be sorrowful unto death means to be pushed to the extreme limits with grief. The words describe almost unendurable suffering.

Spoken in the context of Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s imminent arrest, Jesus’ sorrow echoes the words of Sirach 37:2: “Is it not a grief to the death when a companion and friend turns to enmity?”

Remain here and keep watch with me.”

Jesus asks his closest friends to keep him company and prepare themselves by prayer for the temptations that will follow.

He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer,

Knowing all that is about to happen to him, Jesus kneels down and falls on his face, highlighting his distress and the intensity of the prayer that follows. Luke tells us that he went about a stone’s throw away (Luke 22:41).

Strictly speaking, because Jesus had complete self-control, he could have avoided showing this suffering and his human limitations. By showing his agony, we are better able to understand the mystery of his genuine humanness — and to that extent, better imitate it.

saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me;

“This cup” is a symbol of suffering and divine anger (Isaiah 51:17, Ezekiel 23:33).

Jesus’ entire life is a battle against the devil, culminating in the cross. Here in the garden, the temptation to avoid following God’s will is evident.

It was natural for Jesus to shrink from the horror of the cross, a horror magnified by his knowledge that he would experience the weight of divine anger on sin.

After the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the devil had departed from him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13). Now, with the passion, Satan attacks again, using the flesh’s natural repugnance to suffering; this is his hour “and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).

yet, not as I will, but as you will.”

Struggling against every instinct in his completely human body, Jesus demonstrates fortitude, utterly aligning his will to that of the Father.

Jesus submits to God’s plan, demonstrating trust in God’s divine providence. He faces his suffering, feels the full force of it, and freely embraces it for the sake of our salvation.

In this critical moment, we see Jesus reliving the test of Adam and proving himself to be a faithful Son of God precisely where Adam was unfaithful:

  • Both were tested by Satan in a garden (Gethsemane, Eden)
  • Adam did not trust the Father in his time of testing, preferring his own will to God’s; whereas Jesus says to the Father, “your will be done”
  • Adam’s disobedience led him to the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, while Christ’s prayer of obedience led him to the wood of the cross, which Christians will later call the Tree of Life

When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. 

The disciples are too weary to stay awake. People retired and arose early in the ancient world (there was no electricity; they worked by natural light).

He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Peter is being addressed individually.

The word in Greek for “test” is peirasmos, which is also translated as “temptation.” It is the same word used to describe the temptations that Satan inflicted on Christ in the desert at the beginning of his ministry; and is also the same word found at the end of the Our Father (“lead us not into temptation”, Luke 11:4).

Jesus is encouraging Peter to resist the testing he is about to face as he witnesses his master being arrested, condemned, scourged, and crucified.

The spirit and the flesh correspond to the two tendencies of rabbinic psychology, good and evil.

Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. 

It’s unclear how the apostles were able to report this scene in such detail, given that they were a stone’s throw away and kept falling asleep. The most likely explanation is that Jesus, after his resurrection, told his disciples about his agony (Acts 1:3), as he must also have told them about the time he was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1).

He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. Then he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? 

Jesus prays a variation of the same prayer three times; his apostles disappoint him three times. Three is the number of completion in Hebrew numerology. Christ has completely submitted to God’s will, and the apostles have completely failed him.

Jesus is utterly alone in his agony. This aching loneliness in the garden is Christ’s entry into the psychological and spiritual space of the sinner. Jesus’ desire to atone for our sins was so great that there is no part of his being that he withholds from being saturated with pain, including his spirit.

Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.”

Irony: Jesus has asked his friends to keep watch so he can pray, yet Jesus himself is the one who sees the approaching party. 

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs,

The wording seems to convey that Judas is the leader of the crowd, but that’s unlikely. He is more like their guide, since he knew the area and would need to identify Jesus to the guards.

who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people.

The scribes aren’t mentioned as part of the crowd but will appear at the trial. The Pharisees are not mentioned at all in this passage, although the scribes were mostly Pharisees. The chief priests were Sadducees.

His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying, “The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.” Immediately he went over to Jesus and said, “Hail, Rabbi!” and he kissed him.

To effect his betrayal, Judas uses a sign of friendship and trust.

Jesus answered him, “Friend, do what you have come for.”

Although he knows what Judas is really doing, Jesus treats him with great gentleness. Other Bible translations render this line as, “Friend, why are you here?”

This is a kind of final chance for Judas to open his heart and repent.

Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus put his hand to his sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear.

All four gospels report this incident. John’s gospel (18:10) tells us the person that drew his sword was Peter.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?”

Jesus again demonstrates that he is giving himself up of his own free will. He could have asked his Father to send angels to defend him, but does not do so. He knows why this is all happening and he wants to make it quite clear that in the last analysis it is not force which puts him to death but his own love and his desire to fulfill the Father’s will.

At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to seize me? Day after day I sat teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me. But all this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.”

His opponents fail to grasp Jesus’ supernatural way of doing things. He had done his best to teach them but their hardness of heart prevented them from accepting his teaching.

Then all the disciples left him and fled.

The disciples had been ready to defend Jesus by force. When he himself rejects the defense, they don’t know what to do.

This fulfills the prophecy in Zechariah 13:7: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered.”

Those who had arrested Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter was following him at a distance as far as the high priest’s courtyard, and going inside he sat down with the servants to see the outcome.

The houses of affluent Jews had a front lobby, which opened into a courtyard (i.e., patio). By crossing the courtyard, one could enter the rooms proper.

Peter follows, going through the lobby but staying in the courtyard.

The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward.

The ruling council was composed of 70 members plus the high priest, who served as the presiding officer. It was composed of the elders of the chief families and clans, the former high priests, and the scribes.

In their quest to charge Jesus with a capital crime, the false testimony of the witnesses did not agree.

Finally two came forward who stated, “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three days rebuild it.’”

Deuteronomy 17:6 requires two witnesses in order to condemn a person to death. The testimony of these two witnesses is the same and therefore fulfills the requirement.

Their testimony refers to Jesus’ statement in John 2:19-21: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body.”

The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

The swearing of the oath makes this a covenant ritual. The invocation of the “living God” would damn the soul forever if he lied, as a violation of the second commandment.

The high priest meant no more by this title than it signified in the Old Testament: the specially chosen one, the Davidic king. In the eyes of the Sanhedrin, that Jesus should claim such a privilege insulted God; for this humiliated, rejected man to presume to reveal and mediate the Lord’s glory to Israel was a supreme irreverence to God.

Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so.

Another half-affirmative answer, as Jesus gave earlier to Judas (Matthew 26:25). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ reply is simply “I am” (Mark 14:62).

But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’”

Jesus then points to his future exaltation drawing from Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1.

Then the high priest tore his robes

A sign of great distress. In that day, garments were very valuable, especially the robes of the high priest.

and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?” They said in reply, “He deserves to die!”

Leviticus 24:16 says that blasphemy was punishable by death.

Then they spat in his face and struck him, while some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is it that struck you?”

By omitting the blindfold and the servants of Mark 14:67, Matthew creates some confusion. The Sanhedrin members themselves appear to slap Jesus. Their question asks him to identify unknown (rather than unseen) mockers.

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard.

The altercation during the arrest and Jesus’ subsequent reaction (“put your sword back into its sheath”) disconcerted Peter. He is quite demoralized, yet brave enough to follow Jesus to Caiaphas’ house, especially considering that this is where Malchus, the man whose ear he cut off, works (John 18:10-11).

One of the maids came over to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it in front of everyone, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about!”

Peter’s faith is put to the supreme test. A few hours earlier, Peter had assured Jesus that he was ready to go with him to prison and to death (Luke 22:33).

Now Peter denies being with Jesus at all.

As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man!”

A second denial.

A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter, “Surely you too are one of them; even your speech gives you away.” At that he began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man.”

A third denial. This one is escalated by Peter’s cursing and swearing.

And immediately a cock crowed. Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.

Both Matthew and Luke note that Peter wept “bitterly.” Peter neither concealed nor excused his lapse. For failings such as this, there is no remedy but repentance.

What Jesus had said in the intimacy of the Last Supper, has now come true: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

Peter has committed a grave sin, but his repentance is also deep. His faith, now put to the test, will become the basis on which Christ will build his Church (Matthew 16:18).

When it was morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.

Jewish custom forbade night trials for serious charges. Since such trials had no legal validity, the Sanhedrin waits until morning to take further action.

They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.

The governor was the senior Roman official in Judea. The Jewish leaders brought Jesus before Pilate because, being under Roman law, they could not carry out capital punishment on their own. They were seeking a public sentence of death to counteract Jesus’ reputation and erase his teaching from the people’s minds.

Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.” Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself.

Judas’ remorse does not lead him to repent of his sins and be converted; he cannot bring himself to turn trustingly to God and be forgiven. He despairs, mistrusting God’s infinite mercy, and takes his own life.

The chief priests gathered up the money, but said, “It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood.”

Once again the chief priests and elders show their hypocrisy. They worry about exact fulfillment of a precept of the Law — not to put into the temple treasury money resulting from an evil action — yet they themselves have instigated that action.

After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of a man with a price on his head, a price set by some of the Israelites, and they paid it out for the potter’s field just as the Lord had commanded me.”

Most of the words in this quotation are actually from Zechariah (11:12-13), but the content is also closely related to Jeremiah 19:1–13, which is a prophecy of judgment for the shedding of innocent blood. Jeremiah twice speaks of a potter (19:1,11), and Matthew’s “Field of Blood” recalls his designation of Tophet as the “Valley of Slaughter” (Jeremiah 19:6), which also was to become a burial ground (19:11).

Matthew is teaching that Judas’s and the priests’ actions fulfill the judgment prophecies of both Zechariah and Jeremiah.

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and he questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

This is a Roman trial. Note that the chief priest had asked “Are you the Messiah?”, a question with religious implications, while the Gentile magistrate asks “Are you the king of the Jews?”, which questions his loyalty to the Roman emperor.

Jesus said, “You say so.”

Once again we see Jesus replying with a half-affirmative (Matthew 26:25, 26:64), where the emphasis is on the pronoun; once again, the implication is that the statement would not have been made if the question had not been asked.

An unqualified affirmative response is not made because Jesus’ kingship is not what Pilate would understand it to be.

And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?”

The Jewish leaders, knowing that the charge of blasphemy would be meaningless to the Roman court, trumped up three political charges that Pilate would not be able to ignore: 1) that Jesus was a revolutionary, 2) that he had urged the people not to pay taxes, and 3) that he claimed to be king.

But he did not answer him one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Jesus’ complete silence can be seen as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7.

Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished.

This custom is not attested to outside the gospels.

It may be that Pilate suspected that the Jewish leadership, with whom he had a tense and often acrimonious relationship, was trying to trap him somehow. This offer may have been more of an attempt to test that theory than an effort to save Jesus.

And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.

Barabbas was a notorious insurrectionist. Pilate tries to stack the deck by presenting what he considered the least welcome alternative to Jesus.

So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Which one do you want me to release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” 

Pilate is used to dealing with rebels; he realizes that Jesus is no serious threat to the Roman Empire.

For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over.

The chief priests and elders had seen how the crowd followed Jesus. This caused them to be envious of him, an envy which grew into a hatred that sought his death (John 11:47).

Matthew points out Pilate’s understanding of what lies at the heart of this religious rivalry.

While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.”

This scene, which stresses the innocence of Jesus, only appears in Matthew’s gospel. He wanted his Jewish audience to be assured that Jesus was completely innocent of all charges brought against him both in the Jewish court and in the Roman court.

The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus.

The group who had sent the arresting party now incites the crowd.

The governor said to them in reply, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!”

There is much symbolism in this choice, because the name Barabbas means “son of the father.” In choosing him, the crowds favor this false “son of the father,” who represents violence and vengence, over Jesus, The Son of The Father, who represents peace and forgiveness.

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?”

An indirect statement of Jesus’ innocence.

They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.”

Rather than take a stand to protect the innocent Jesus, Pilate cowardly caves to the pressure and allows Jesus to be scourged and crucified.

Pilate tries publicly to justify his lack of courage, even though he has all the material necessary for giving an honest verdict. His cowardice, which he disguises by this external gesture, ends up condemning Christ to death.

And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

The people take the responsibility for Jesus’ fate onto themselves. This includes the priests, the elders, and the crowd; all Israel is represented. See 2 Samuel 1:16, Jeremiah 26:15.

Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified.

The entire proceeding is blatantly unjust. After being declared innocent, Jesus is immediately sent for torture, then death.

Roman scourging was much more severe than mere whipping. It normally involved the prisoner’s being stripped and tied to a pillar or low post. The whip had multi-stranded leather thongs ending with sharp pieces of bone or metal spikes, which would rip a person’s flesh in a single stroke. Prisoners often died from this punishment.

When used in conjunction with crucifixion, it allowed the Roman soldiers some control over how long the prisoner would survive. A long, severe scourging would greatly weaken the prisoner and result in a quicker death on the cross. This is the case with Christ.

Even the passive aspects of Jesus’ passion, including the scourging at the pillar, are expressions of his active will to give himself up in self-surrender, a loving completion of God’s promise to his people.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium

The praetorium was the official residence and military headquarters of a Roman governor, where he had his guard and held court. Only Saint Luke has Jesus appearing before both Pilate and Herod.

and gathered the whole cohort around him.

At full strength, a cohort (or battalion) consisted of some 625 soldiers.

It seems improbable that the entire force was gathered here; “the whole” is believed to infer a large representative grouping.

They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him.

Mark and John call it a purple robe, purple being the color of royalty and of the Roman aristocracy. Scarlet was the color worn by Roman military, by high-ranking officials, and by the emporer himself.

Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand.

The reed was meant to simulate a scepter, completing the costume of cruel sarcasm.

And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

In a scene that represents the height of Jesus’ humiliation, the mockery of the soldiers added psychological torture to the physical torment. The crude sport of the soldiers expresses their contempt not only for the alleged king but also for the people whose king this was purported to be. They even mimic the royal address one would give to the emperor (“Hail, Caesar!”).

While they scoff at Jesus, they have no idea how appropriate their words actually are. Despite their cruel intentions, they unwittingly proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ: He really is the Messiah, the true King of the Jews. Further, precisely as the King of the Jews and the Son of David, Jesus is implicitly king to these soldiers — the mission of the messianic Davidic king is the unification not only of the tribes of Israel, but also of the tribes of all the world.

The homage these pagan soldiers pay in jest anticipates the sincere honor countless Christians will give Jesus as they worship him as their Lord and King.

They spat upon him and took the reed and kept striking him on the head.

Jesus puts up no resistance to being beaten and ridiculed.

One might hear echoes of Isaiah’s prophecy about the suffering servant of the Lord: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).

Christ absorbs the mockery and hatred of the soldiers, and later the crowd, thereby revealing the infinite quality of God’s divine forgiveness and love.

And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him.

Crucifixion was an Oriental method of punishment adopted by the Romans, usually reserved only for slaves, bandits, and rebels. It was so horrible that it was prohibited by Roman law to crucify Roman citizens.

Crucifixion was a slow and agonizing death. Nails were probably driven through the wrists rather than the palms. The weight of the suspended body made breathing difficult and painful. Involuntary efforts by the legs to ease the pressure greatly increased pain in the feet, an ordeal that continued until the exhausted victim could no longer breathe. In some cases, this might take several days, which is why prisoners were often first weakened by flogging or scourging them.

As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon; this man they pressed into service to carry his cross.

Crucifixions generally took place outside the city walls along crowded roads so that many people would see the consequences of revolting against Rome. At the crucifixion site, the vertical part of the cross was planted in the ground. The condemned criminal was given the crossbeam in the city and had it placed over his shoulders like a yoke, with his arms hooked over it. He would be forced to carry the crossbeam through the streets and out the city gates using the longest possible route so that the maximum number of people might view the scene and be deterred from crime.

It was highly unusual for another person to be permitted to carry the crossbeam for a criminal; the fact that they do so here is an indication of the especially savage nature of the scourging that took place. Jesus is so physically weak that the soldiers realize he may not make it to the execution site. Roman soldiers had the authority to require assistance from civilians, and they press into service Simon of Cyrene.

We don’t know much about this Simon. Cyrene was a center of Jewish population in northern Africa. He may have been in Jerusalem as a pilgrim for the Passover feast. Luke’s gospel notes that Simon is “coming in from the country” when he is enlisted to carry Jesus’ cross. He probably has no idea about the dramatic events occurring in Jerusalem that day. The fact that he was not in Jerusalem during the uproar surrounding Christ’s trial and condemnation tells us that he did not participate in the mob shouting for Jesus’ execution — an important reminder that not all Jews were intensely opposed to Jesus.

One might wonder at a complete stranger being pulled into the scene. Where were all the people who benefitted from Jesus’ preaching and healing and miracles? Where were his friends and disciples? None of them is here to help him. He is in the center of the crowd, tortured, innocent — with not a friend in sight.

Jesus had said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). But fear and cowardice have taken over.

And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull),

Golgotha was a little hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem; it was used as a site for executing criminals. The name comes from a transcription of an Aramaic word meaning “head”; the name “Calvary” comes from a Latin word (calvariae) with the same meaning.

Hebrew legend has it that Adam’s skull was buried there, which is why some depictions of the crucifixion have a skull beneath the cross.

The second Adam is sacrificed over the remains of the first.

they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink.

Jesus is offered a drink consisting of a mixture of wine, honey, and myrrh (see Mark 15:23). This was usually given to people condemned to death, as a narcotic to lessen the pain.

Most interpreters see two reasons why Jesus chose not to take it, which are not mutually exclusive: he wanted to suffer the full rigor of his passion, and/or he was saving the act of drinking as a symbolic act. (Recall earlier in the reading (Matthew 26:29), Jesus said, “I will not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.”) See also Psalm 69:21 (69:22 in NAB).

“Let us drink to the last drop the chalice of pain in this poor present life. What does it matter to suffer for ten years, twenty, fifty… if afterward there is heaven forever, forever… forever? And, above all — rather than because of the reward, propter retributionem — what does suffering matter if we suffer to console, to please God our Lord, in a spirit of reparation, united to him on his Cross; in a word: if we suffer for Love?…” (Saint Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, 182).

After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there.

The division of garments was a privilege given to the soldiers who handled the execution; the crucified were stripped entirely nude as a final humiliation.

This action fulfilled Psalm 22:18, as is made explicit in John 19:23-24. In fact, the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion fulfill Psalm 22 in numerous ways.

And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.

The placard at the head of the cross specified the crime. It was written in Greek, the language of culture; in Latin, the language of the government; and in Hebrew, the language of the country.

By phrasing the charge this way, Pilate was insulting the Jewish leaders — but the irony of its truth was very apparent to the early church.

(It is from John’s gospel that we get the inscription INRI, which are the first letters of “Jesus the Nazorean King of the Jews” in Latin.

Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left.

All four Gospels state that Jesus was crucified between two criminals; in his death, he “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

The goal of crucifixion was not simply to execute but to maximize the corresponding pain and public humiliation. Stripped of clothing and nailed or bound to a cross with their arms extended and raised, their exposed bodies had no means of coping with heat, cold, insects, or pain.

Those passing by reviled him,

See Psalm 109:25.

shaking 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, and come down from the cross!”

These taunts are reminiscent of the devil’s temptations of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3,6).

In light of the full gospel story, note the irony: Jesus was going to return after three days, and “rebuild” the temple of his body. Precisely because he was the Son of God, he would not come down from the cross.

Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him

The mockery of those who are executed has been a universal feature wherever public executions have been practiced. The taunts come from all Israel: the passersby, priests, scribes, and elders.

and said, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

This aspect of the scene, which emphasizes the necessity of the cross, is not found in Mark’s gospel. The chief priests, scribes, and elders tempt God just as the devil tempted Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). Recall that two of the temptations began, “If you are the Son of God…”

Neither God the Father nor Jesus responds to the temptation to prove Jesus’ identity as God’s Son by sparing Jesus his suffering and death on the cross.

The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way. From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

While Jesus hung between heaven and earth, darkness came over the whole land.

As a symbol of the power of darkness (Luke 22:53), this was fitting: just as heavenly light had shone at the time of his birth (Luke 2:8-14), darkness characterized his terrible death.

And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These are the opening words of Psalm 22, which show the physical and moral pain Jesus is suffering. This is not a cry of despair or abandonment; he is invoking the entire psalm by its opening words (a common practice at the time) and calling to the mind of the hearer all the prophecies of the psalm which he is fulfilling. The psalm expresses his total trust that the Father will vindicate him and ends on a clearly victorious note.

The cry is in Aramaic, except the Hebrew “Eli.” Mark gives the Aramaic “Eloi.”

Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “This one is calling for Elijah.”

The cry of Eli, Eli sounds like the name Elijah. The bystanders who thought this must have been Jews.

Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. But the rest said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.” But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.

John 19:30 tells us that Jesus drank the wine and cried out “It is finished,” the words proclaimed after the fourth cup of the Passover meal was consumed. Jesus has completed his Passover sacrifice.

The phrase “gave up his spirit” (literally, “released, exhaled”) is a way of saying that Christ really died; like any other man, his death meant the separation of soul and body.

The fact that he genuinely did die — something that everyone, even his enemies, acknowledged — will show that his resurrection was a real resurrection, a miraculous, divine fact.

This is the climax of Christ’s surrender to the will of his Father. Here he accomplishes the salvation of all mankind (Matthew 26:27-28, Mark 10:45, Hebrews 9:14) and gives us the greatest proof of God’s love for us (John 3:16).

The saints usually explain the expiatory value of Christ’s sacrifice by underlining that he voluntarily “gave up his spirit”:

“Our Saviour’s death was a sacrifice of holocaust which he himself offered to his Father for our redemption; for though the pains and sufferings of his passion were so great and violent that anyone else would have died of them, Jesus would not have died of them unless he so chose and unless the fire of his infinite charity had consumed his life. He was, then, himself the sacrificer who offered himself to the Father and immolated himself, dying in love, to love, by love, for love, and of love” (Saint Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Book 10, Chapter 17).

And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two

In the temple, the veil of the sanctuary separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was accessible only by the high priest and then only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

The rending of the temple veil indicates that the way to God the Father has been opened to all men (see Hebrews 9:15) and that the New Covenant, sealed with the blood of Christ, has begun to operate.

The veil has been lifted, the Holy of Holies is no longer forbidden. Heaven has been opened.

from top to bottom.

No man could tear the curtain in this direction; a way of indicating that this was God’s doing.

The earth quaked, rocks were split,

These portents are signs of the earth-shattering importance and divine character of the event that has taken place. This was not just one more man who was dying, but the Son of God.

tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. 

These events are undoubtedly difficult to understand. There is no other part of Holy Scripture or teaching of the Church to clarify what actually happened.

The great Church writers have suggested three possible explanations:

  1. This was not a matter of resurrections in the strict sense, but apparitions of these dead people.
  2. These are dead people who arose in the way Lazarus did, and then died again.
  3. Their resurrection was definitive, that is glorious, in this way anticipating the final universal resurrection of the dead.

The first explanation doesn’t seem very faithful to the text, which uses the words “were raised” (surrexerunt). The third explanation is difficult to reconcile with the clear assertion of Scripture that Christ was the first-born from the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:20, Colossians 1:18).

Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and Saint Thomas were inclined toward the second explanation because they felt it fits best with the sacred text and doesn’t present the theological difficulties which the third does (see Summa Theologae, 3, 53, 3). It is also in keeping with the solution proposed by the Saint Pius V Catechism, 1, 6, 9).

The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

It is ironic and unexpected that the first to recognize Jesus’ true identity were Romans.

There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

These are the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee. John’s gospel has them much closer to the action and accompanied by John himself and the Blessed Virgin (19:25). Their presence serves as an example of stoutheartedness to all Christians.

“Woman is stronger than man, and more faithful, in the hour of suffering: Mary of Magdala and Mary Cleophas and Salome! With a group of valiant women like these, closely united to our Lady of Sorrows, what work for souls could be done in the world!”(Saint Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, 982).

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus.

Mark and Luke identify Joseph as a member of the Sanhedrin. Matthew may have seen a problem in the discipleship of a member of a council that had voted for the death of Jesus, but it is unclear whether Joseph actually attended the council meeting. Arimathea is about twenty miles northeast of Jerusalem.

He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed.

It was customary for well-to-do Jews to build tombs for themselves on their own property. Most of these tombs were excavated out of rock, in the form of a cavern.

Joseph’s gift of his tomb completes Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah 53:9.

But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.

It is not unimportant that the two Marys carefully note the location of the tomb. The areas surrounding the walls of Jerusalem had literally hundreds, if not thousands, of tombs. The resurrection apologetic demands that the spot where Jesus is buried should be known exactly. Likewise, it is also important that the tomb is new, not previously used.

The next day, the one following the day of preparation,

The Day of Preparation (from the Greek parasceve) was the day prior to the sabbath (see Luke 23:54). It got its name from the fact that it was the day when everything needed for the sabbath was prepared, the sabbath being a day of rest, consecrated to God, on which no work was permitted.

the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raised up.’

It is remarkable that the priests and Pharisees show such accurate knowledge of Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection which Jesus’ own disciples seem to have completely forgotten.

Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ This last imposture would be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “The guard is yours; go secure it as best you can.” So they went and secured the tomb by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.

All these preventive measures (sealing the entrance to the tomb, placing the guard there, etc.) — measures taken by Christ’s enemies — became factors that helped people believe in his resurrection.

Pilate has met his obligation: whatever threat to Roman peace and stability that may have existed has been removed.

A contingent from the Jewish ruling body has also accomplished its goals: the contentious wonder-working preacher has been silenced, and any possibility of future upheaval has been sealed in the tomb with his body.

Neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders realize that, in reality, everything is now in place for the eschatological event of the resurrection — they have ironically become agents through whom the plan of God unfolds.

Themes and Connections

The end of Lent.  In this final Lenten Sunday, as we prepare to enter the sacred time of Holy Week, we look again at the significance of Christ in our lives. We recognize him as our Savior, but we look more closely in order to discover just what kind of Savior he is. We find he has taken the form of a slave; he has been glorified with a name above all other names; he continues to suffer with us.

A self-emptying Savior.  We have not been saved through military power but through the kenotic humility of Jesus. Though he was divine, Jesus came in the form of a slave. We have a Savior who was crushed for our iniquities, nailed to a cross as a convicted felon, and who there endured the sense of abandonment. Why has God stooped so low? Why did Christ empty himself so completely? Yes, he was obedient to God’s will, even to death, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question: Why does God love us with such abandon?

A highly exalted Savior.  We have a Savior who was lifted up and exalted precisely because he emptied himself of his divine prerogatives. He became one of us in order to show us how we are to live. Unlike conquerors who triumph by putting down their opponents, Jesus was raised up because he himself was first willing to be put down. His glorification was won at a great price, but it is his by victory and not by mere bestowal. His name commands the homage no other name can claim, and it does so because he first handed himself over to us.

An example for us.  We have a Savior who first offered himself for us and then continues to offer himself to us as an example to follow. As he was willing to empty himself for our sake, so we must be willing to empty ourselves for the sake of others.

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