Sunday Scriptures

Understanding the Passion Is Key to Beginning of Holy Week

by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, with the exuberant hosannas of the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem quickly giving way to the mockery of Roman soldiers and the derision of the passers-by at Calvary.

Each year, the Lectionary for Mass presents us with the Passion narrative from one of the first three Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – on Palm Sunday, while each Good Friday we proclaim the Passion according to John.

The Passion narrative is accompanied by readings that nourish our reflection on the mystery of the cross. Thus from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear the voice of Jesus resonating with the words of the Servant of the Lord. “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.”

Yet with deep trust in God, He affirms, “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.”

The responsorial psalm has as its refrain words that we find on the lips of the crucified Jesus Himself from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Rising to the heavens from the utter loneliness of agonizing pain, this cry of lament ends not with despair but instead with confidence that God hears the prayers of the sufferer who calls: “O Lord, be not far from me; O my help, hasten to aid me.”

From Paul’s letter to the young church at Philippi, we read what are likely to have been the lyrics of one of the earliest Christian hymns. It sings in praise of the self-emptying humility of Jesus, who took onto Himself the whole of our human condition, embracing even death itself, and whose ultimate generosity makes His the name exalted above all others.

The Passion narratives, written decades after the events they describe, should not be mistaken for court reporters’ transcripts. They are instead profound reflections on the significance of the events of Holy Week.

Richly woven with references to the Old Testament, these texts made it possible for the early followers of Jesus to spell out what it meant to stand in the shadow of the Savior’s cross and in the light of His resurrection.

As we prayerfully study the Passion according to Matthew, it is vitally important to keep from misinterpreting and misunderstanding it in ways that rob the Paschal Mystery of its saving purpose and its reconciling power. For example, when Pontius Pilate seeks a way out of a dilemma by offering to release a prisoner on the occasion of Passover, the mob calls for the release of the notorious Barabbas and not the innocent Jesus.

Dramatically, the governor washes his hands in the sight of the crowd and declares “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” to which the mob responds “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Tragically, these words fueled centuries of negative Christian teaching about Jews and Judaism, harsh words that led to much oppression and bloodshed.

In his book, “Jesus of Nazareth Part Two: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection,” Pope Benedict XVI helps us to understand the authentic significance of these words, explaining that “Jesus’ blood does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone, it is poured out for many, for all…read in the light of faith,” these words suggest “that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.”

In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (known by its Latin title Nostra Aetate), the fathers of the Second Vatican Council insisted that the responsibility for Christ’s Passion “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” and that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”

The Council likewise made it clear that “in her rejection of every persecution…the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

To rightly understand the Passion, the Council fathers explained, is to recognize that “Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of humankind and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows.”

As we ponder the mysteries of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection during this Holy Week, how will our own words and our own actions give witness to the One who humbled Himself for our sakes, giving His life to reconcile us to God and to all our brothers and sisters? How will we work to put into practice in our own time the life-giving power of Christ’s generous and all-merciful love?[hr]

Readings for Palm Sunday Of the Lord’s Passion

For the Processions with Palms: Matthew 21:1-11

Isaiah 50:4-7

Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24

Philippians 2:6-11

Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 or Matthew 27: 11-54[hr] Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.