This weekend we celebrate Passion or Palm Sunday. St. Matthew's Gospel is used during this cycle of the Lectionary for Mass.
The passion narrative is actually the beginning of the Gospel tradition. First century Christians realized some thirty or forty years after the death of Jesus that as the eyewitnesses began to die off, they should preserve the memory of Jesus' life giving passion, death and resurrection in writing for future generations. There is evidence within the Gospels themselves that the material that precedes the passion narratives was actually written after the passion narrative itself. For instance, in last week's account of the raising of Lazarus, St. John refers to the fact that Mary of Bethany was the one who anointed the feet of Jesus. That event is actually recounted in a later chapter.
St. Matthew's and that of St. Mark are similar in content. St. Matthew does embellish the narrative in typical Matthean fashion by including many references from the Hebrew Scriptures and the psalms. Many of these details are lifted from Psalm 22 and Psalm 69 making it almost impossible to pray these psalms without thinking of Jesus' experience.
In St. Matthew's account, Jesus is utterly abandoned by his followers. Though the Gospel writer tells us that the disciples "left everything" to follow Jesus in the early chapters of the Gospel, ironically, they all abandon Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and do their utmost to get away from him. No one stands under the cross in this Gospel though a few women are seen standing off at a distance. St. Matthew takes the words of the psalmist and places them in the mouth of Jesus as he hangs on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Psalm 22:2a)
One of the most interesting aspects of St. Matthew's account is the developing understanding of who Jesus is. If we include the passage read before the procession with palm branches, we hear Jesus addressed or referred to by several different titles. First he is called "master" as the disciples procure a mount upon which he can enter Jerusalem. The crowds call him "Son of David" and "Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth." Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man while Judas calls him "Rabbi." Caiaphas asks Jesus whether he is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Pilate and the soldiers call him "King of the Jews." Finally, the centurion standing beneath the cross says, "Surely, this was the Son of God."
This list of names suggests the developing consciousness of the community out of which the Gospel springs. As the early Christians reflected on the events at the end of Jesus' life, they begin to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for them. Ironically, it is the Roman centurion, the pagan in the midst of the Jews, who calls Jesus the Son of God. This detail reminds us that Jesus came to his own, but his own did not recognize him.
Celebrating the passion of Jesus at the beginning of this week plunges us into the holiest of weeks in our calendar. From now until next Sunday, we have the opportunity to reflect with the early Christian community, asking ourselves who Jesus is for us. If we come to embrace Jesus as our Savior, we must also embrace the instrument by which Jesus saved us – the cross. While most of our culture pushes us to embrace our wants, our desires, our own wills, Jesus reminds us that our lives are not about ourselves. We live for others.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator