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Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year A) – April 13th E-mail
Written by Nicholas King SJ   
Saturday, 15 February 2014 16:33

•    Matthew 21:1-11
•    Isaiah 50:4-7
•    Psalm 22: 8-9, 17-20, 23-24,
•    Philippians 2:6-11
•    Matthew 26:14-27:66

Next Sunday we enter the solemn drama of Holy Week; the readings for the day are immensely rich, and you will do well to read reflectively through them all: Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (and you might count how many animals he is riding); then the first of the Songs of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah; next, the psalm, one that has coloured the gospel narratives of Jesus’ passion, and then the second reading, an ancient Christian hymn stressing how Christ “emptied himself”, and how God in response “gave him the name which is above all other names”.

The gospel for next Sunday, however, is the immensely long account in the First Gospel of Jesus’ passion; and this year it seems good to go through that sombre and powerful story, pointing out to you a few landmarks that may assist your praying as you hear it read out next week.

You will notice that the story begins and ends with the religious establishment; at the beginning, they are visited by Judas Iscariot, who asks for a bribe to hand Jesus over; at the end they are consulting with Pilate about making the tomb secure, “to prevent any of that Resurrection-nonsense”. In the meantime, it is Jesus who very largely runs the show; his disciples, rather belatedly, given how crowded Jerusalem is for Passover, ask about where he is proposing to eat the Passover meal, only to discover that Jesus has it all arranged. Then we are present at the meal, overshadowed by sadness, because “one of you is going to betray me”. Judas asks, “It’s not me, is it, Rabbi?” Now in Matthew’s gospel “Rabbi” is a forbidden form of address for Jesus’ followers, and Judas is the only person who uses it; Jesus simply replies to him, as he will later to the High Priest, and to Pilate, “you said it”. The sadness continues as Jesus, in the gesture that Christians have imitated ever since, breaks the bread, and blesses the cup: “this is my body”, “this is my blood”. Then after supper, and singing the appropriate psalms, they go out to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus predicts that “you are all going to be scandalised by me tonight”; Peter stoutly denies it, “even if I have to die with you”, and we just wish he would hold his peace. Next we watch Jesus at his prayer; here Matthew follows Mark, except that he does not include the word “Abba” in his prayer. What he does, however, is to describe Jesus’ posture, “falling on his face” and then include a petition from his own version of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done”. He also adds one or two characteristic Matthew-touches: he tidies up Jesus’ words to the disciples at the end of the period of prayer, for example; and he emphasises, as he did at the very beginning of the gospel, about the fulfilment of the Scriptures, an idea of immense importance to Matthew. He omits Mark’s mysterious story of the “young man” who ran away naked; when it comes to the trial before the Sanhedrin, he emphasises that the council were looking for “false” witnesses.

For the most part, Jesus is silent here, until the High Priest puts him on oath “by the Living God”, to speak out; then he utters, powerfully, “...from now on, you are going to see the Son of Man sitting on the right side of power and coming on the clouds of heaven”. There are other small additions that Matthew makes (although he omits the detail about Peter “warming himself” at the fire); for example he adds to the soldiers’ insulting demands to “prophesy”  the demand to know, “Who struck you, Christ?”, perhaps just making things a bit clearer. It is only Matthew who indicates that the reason they knew Peter was a Galilean was his funny accent; and only Matthew that has Judas repenting and returning the blood-money to the Temple, before he goes off and hangs himself. Only in Matthew do we have Mrs. Pilate’s dream, which leads her to want Jesus to be acquitted; and it is Matthew alone who has Pilate publicly wash his hands, in a gesture taken from the Book of Deuteronomy. And only in Matthew do the crowds shout “His blood be on ourselves and on our children”, which has had dire consequences for the relations between Christians and Jews ever since. Matthew particularly emphasises Jesus being the Son of God, in terms that remind us of his account of the Temptation in the Wilderness. And it is Matthew who changes Mark’s “Elohi” to “Eli”, which is a different language, but possibly it sounds more like Elijah. Only in Matthew do we find the earthquake that shakes Jerusalem, and the resurrection of the bodies of the saints; only Matthew has the mother of the sons of Zebedee at the cross; and only in Matthew is there an armed guard sealing the tomb. This powerful and solemn story has a right to be named “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, and you will do well to read slowly and prayerfully through it in the course of the coming week.