Scripture and the Liturgy

Paraded, then Persecuted: Readings for Palm/Passion Sunday

This Sunday’s readings might seem bipolar or schizophrenic.  We begin Mass with exultant cheering as we relive Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We end the Readings on an note of solemn silence, unable to process the reality of one of the most egregious abuses of judicial process and power in human history, in which the only innocent man ever to live is executed.  What does it all mean?

Despite a few mysterious prophetic texts that seemed to intimate this possibility, the idea that the Messiah could arrive and subsequently be killed was radically counter-intuitive to most of first-century Jews. 

Yet the conviction of the early Christians, based on Jesus of Nazareth’s own teachings about himself, was that the radically counter-intuitive impossibility was actually prophesied, if one had the eyes to see and the ears to hear it in Israel’s Scriptures.

The Readings for this Mass offer us two of the most poignant prophecies of the suffering of the Messiah.

1. Isaiah 50:4-7, the First Reading, is part of one of the several enigmatic “servant songs” characteristic of the second part of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66).  (I follow Benjamin Sommer in seeing Isa 40-66 as a literary unit.)  The subject of these “songs” or poems is a mysterious “servant” of the Lord, who is described variously in the first, second and third person:

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.

Isaiah 50:4-7 is a first-person account of the Servant.  He refers to his persecutions: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard.”  Yet he is confident of vindication: “I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”

This is the lesser of two passages in Isaiah that speak of the sufferings of the servant.  The other, more famous and longer, passage is Isaiah 52:13–53:12, which the Church saves for the Good Friday liturgy.

With respect to both passages, we may well take up the query of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:34): “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?”

It is a puzzle.  Traditionally the passage has been understood as the writing of Isaiah the prophet of Jerusalem.  Yet we know of no physical persecution of Isaiah like this.  Modern critical scholarship divides Isaiah into at least three different main sections, with different authors and a multitude of anonymous “redactors” or editors.  Isaiah 50 might be attributed to an exilic “deutero-“ or “second Isaiah.”  Yet nothing is known about the personal life or ministry of this hypothetical prophet, aside from speculation based on the text of the oracles themselves.

The common conviction of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth is that these texts speak of Him; moreover, that the prophecies of the Scriptures of Israel only make sense and come into focus when seen in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of this Jesus, who was and is the anointed Servant.

So we can take the words of Isaiah 50 as the words of Jesus himself.  Although he submits to torture and death (“I gave my back to those who beat me …”) he knows that he will be vindicated (“knowing that I shall not be put to shame”).  This confidence in the midst of suffering is important for interpreting the Gospel for this Sunday.

2. The Responsorial Psalm—Psalm 22—is perhaps the most dramatic in the psalter, and has always been understood as a prophecy of the passion:

R. (2a) My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
All who see me scoff at me;
they mock me with parted lips, they wag their heads:
“He relied on the LORD; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, if he loves him.”
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Indeed, many dogs surround me,
a pack of evildoers closes in upon me;
They have pierced my hands and my feet;
I can count all my bones.
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
They divide my garments among them,
and for my vesture they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, be not far from me;
O my help, hasten to aid me.
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you:
“You who fear the LORD, praise him;
all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him;
revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”
R. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

In Christian interpretation, we are used to thinking of the Old Testament as speaking literally (for example, of the “promised land”), but these literal statements receive a figurative fulfillment in the New Testament (the “promised land” = heaven).  In certain instances, however, this pattern is reversed.  Psalm 22 is an example. 

In certain places, the psalmist (David, according to tradition) describes his afflictions in a way that can only be figurative or hyperbolic: “I am poured out like water,” “all my bones are out of joint,” “they have pierced my hands and feet,” “I can count all my bones.”

We know of no instance where any of these things were true literally of David or any other Old Testament figure.  They are emotive overstatements of the psalmist’s suffering.  Yet, they receive a literal fulfillment in Christ.  The literal fulfillment in Christ’s passion is a condescension of God to us.  It is God writing in big letters in order that we get the point.

Psalm 22 is one of the most complete Todah psalms in the entire psalter.

Todah means “thanks” or “praise,” and the Todah is the “sacrifice of thanksgiving” legislated by Moses in Leviticus 7:11ff.  It was a kind of animal sacrifice not offered in reparation for sin, but out of thanksgiving for some saving act that the LORD had done for the worshipper. 

Excellent work on the Todah and its significance for the psalms has been done by Hartmut Gese, followed by Joseph Ratzinger, and summarized superbly by our own Michael Barber.

The Todah was a festive sacrifice offered as part of a lived cycle of experiences in which you (1) began in a situation of distress, (2) cried out to God, (3) made a vow to offer the Todah if God would save you, (4) God saved you, (5) you paid your vow by offering the Todah sacrifice in the temple, (6) you had a festive party as you and your family and friends ate the meat of the sacrifice and all the bread that was required (see Leviticus 7:11ff), and (7) you gave public testimony to all assembled in the Temple concerning how God saved you. 

Interestingly, the Passover, if categorized according to the genres of sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7, would fall under the category of the Todah sacrifice.

The Todah is significant to the Psalter, because it seems that a large number of Psalms were written for part or all of the Todah cycle described above.

Important Todah psalms include Psalm 116 (my personal favorite), Psalm 50, 56, 100, and several others, including perhaps the most complete, today’s Psalm 22.

Jesus cites Psalm 22 from the cross.  The so-called “Cry of Dereliction,” (“My God, My God …”) is, of course, actually the first line of Psalm 22.

I think Jesus’ cry from the cross is over-read theologically sometimes, as if it indicated that Jesus felt utterly separated from the Father, and had lost the beatific vision. 

Of course, Our Lord’s sufferings were extreme, and difficult for us to comprehend, but the cry of dereliction is not proof that he lost the beatific vision or experienced radical separation from the Father.

The psalms in antiquity were almost certainly not known by their present numberings, because the numbering systems varied according to different editions of the psalter (for example, Qumran’s 11QPalmsa).  The way to refer to a psalm was probably by it’s first line—a practice similar to the traditional Jewish naming of biblical books by their first words (also done in the Catholic tradition with Papal documents).

So when Jesus cites “My God, My God …” from the cross in today’s Gospel, he is really making a reference to all of Psalm 22, inviting the bystanders to interpret what is happening to him in light of this psalm.

With that in mind, fast forward to the end of Psalm 22.  How does the Psalm end?  Our Responsorial includes some of the end:

I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you:
“You who fear the LORD, praise him;
all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him;
revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”

The “assembly” spoken of here is the qahal in Hebrew, the ekklesia in Greek, the Church in English.  It’s a mystical prophesy of the glorification of God in the Church, which will ever praise Him for the salvation he accomplished for his messianic servant.

Too bad our Responsorial only quotes part of the end of the Psalm, because many other things are mentioned in Ps 22:22-31, including the “poor” eating and being satisfied (v. 26; Eucharistic typology) and future generations praising God (vv. 30-31; the transmission of the faith through the generations).

Let’s ask ourselves the question, “Did Jesus knew how the Psalm ended?”

I suspect he did.  Though he was in agony on the cross, he also knew this was the path to triumph (see Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29).  Psalm 22 begins in agony but ends with eternal victory.

3.  The Second Reading is the famous “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:

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 famous passage—often thought to be a early Christian hymn or creed that St. Paul is quoting—gives an outline of the whole Gospel.  Jesus did not see “equality with God as something to be seized,” using the Greek word harpagmon, from a root harpazo, “to snatch or seize, often quickly or violently.”  Jesus is thus a contrast with the Greco-Roman mythical hero Prometheus, who ascended to the realm of the gods and “snatched” fire, bringing it back to man in an effort to attain equality with the divine.  So Prometheus has always stood as an icon of rebellion against God or the gods, and a worldview that imagines the divine as opposed to or limiting the human.  In this worldview, humanity is liberated and fulfilled at the expense of the divine; the realm of God must be rolled back to make way for the kingdom of man.  This spirit continues to animate the New Atheist movement in our own day (with their flagship publisher, Prometheus Books), which is more a miso-theistic (God-hating) cultural force than an a-theistic (no-God) one.

In contrast to Prometheus, Jesus does not conceive of the relationship between God and man as one of antagonism, in which the divine nature must be violently “snatched” from the Divinity.  Jesus empties himself of the glory of his divinity in order to descend to the status of creature, of “slave.”  Crucifixion was the form of execution mandated for slaves; citizens could not be crucified.  Having taken on human nature, he submits to the death of slaves: “even death on a cross.”  But paradoxically, this great act of self-giving love shows the glory of Jesus and the glory of God.  Truly, a God who would so empty himself out of love is greater, more lovable, more worthy of worship, than a God who will not give of himself.  The cross is the glory of our God.  So God the Father bestows on Jesus “the Name which is above every name”, so that at the Name of Jesus, “every knee should bend.”  St. Paul probably has in mind here the ancient ritual of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), on which, according to the Mishnah, the High Priest would exit the Holy of Holies after making atonement for Israel and pronounce the priestly blessing of Numbers 6 upon the gathered worshipers.  This was the one day a year (apparently) when the Divine Name YHWH was pronounced audibly, and each time the assembly heard the name pronounced, they dropped to the ground in prostration.  The name of “Jesus” is now heir to the glory of the divine name YHWH.  In the Name of Jesus we now find salvation.  Thus, in the Catholic tradition we bow the head at the Name of Jesus and celebrate the Feast Day of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (Jan 3), for which our present text is an optional Second Reading.

Unlike the New Atheists, the Jesus and his disciples do not regard the divine-human relationship as one of antagonism where goods are “snatched” from each other, but a relationship of communion, love, and self-gift.  The human is not exalted at the expense of the divine; rather, human and divine are exalted together.  God and man are mutually glorified by loving each other.  Humanity becomes more human by becoming more divine.  Divinization also humanizes.

4.  Our Gospel Reading is one of the longest of the year: the whole Passion account according to Mt 26:14—27:66.  There is so much going on in this passage, it is impossible to comment on it all.  Just a few remarks:

  • The sale of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver recalls to mind the figure of Joseph in the Old Testament, sold by his brother Judah (=Judas) for pieces of silver to the Midianites who put him into slavery in Egypt.  Joseph descended into the pit of prison before being lifted out and set at the right hand of Pharaoh, the de facto ruler of the known world.  This typifies the death, resurrection and ascension.  Jesus is the new Joseph who will feed the world with the gift of finest wheat.
  • At the Last Supper, Jesus speaks over the cup: “This is my blood of the covenant.”  This phrase, “blood of the covenant”, is very uncommon in the Bible.  All occurrences of the phrase ultimately are references to Moses’ covenant solemnization ceremony at Sinai, where he sprinkled the twelve tribes with blood and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you.”  By repeating this words, Jesus is posturing himself as a New Moses who makes a new and better covenant with the twelve apostles on Mt. Zion than Moses made with the twelve tribes at Mt. Sinai.  There is a subtle difference in the wording, however: now it is “my blood of the covenant.”  This covenantal blood is not that of bulls and goats (Heb. 10:4), but of the son of God.  Later, the author of Hebrews will say: “For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb 9:13-14).
  • The hymn Jesus and the apostles sing at the end of the Last Supper would have been the Hallel consisting of Psalms 113-118 chanted in sequence.  This is a beautiful set of psalms well worth meditation during Holy Week.  After this hymn, the custom was to drink the last (fourth) cup of the Passover to conclude the ceremony, but there is no mention of this: instead Jesus seems to depart immediately for the Mount of Olives.  He has said he will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until he drinks it with them in the kingdom.
  • The mystery of Jesus’ agonizing prayer in the Garden reminds us that even the Son of God experienced struggle in his human nature with the will of the Father.  Matthew records this struggle for the encouragement of Christian disciples, so that we know when we ourselves struggle to accept the will of God, even when it means suffering in this life, we are only following the path that Jesus has blazed for us.  Every time I pray this mystery of the rosary, I offer my intention for all those who are struggling to discern and accept the will of God in their lives. 
  • Judas arrives with an armed force to take Jesus, and all the disciples flee.  Here, the wicked plan of David’s betrayer, Ahithophel, recorded in 2 Sam 17:1-4, is finally hatched against the Davidic King.  David himself was spared the night attack that his betrayer plotted against him, but the identical devious plan is finally sprung against David’s greater son.  The fulfillment of this typology from the life of David is one of the texts Jesus has in mind when he says “all this has to come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.”  Other texts are Psalm 22 and Wisdom 2.
  • Jesus is placed under oath to tell if he is the Christ.  His reply, “You have said so,” is not ambiguous: it is like our contemporary colloquialism, “You said it!”  It is a clear affirmation.  Jesus then quotes from Daniel 7, the vision of the “one like a son of man” who comes on clouds (like God) to receive the authority over the whole earth.  Jesus is claiming to be the divine-human king of the world that Daniel saw in his vision.  This is not a small claim!
  • The High Priest accuses Jesus of blasphemy, but that is a big stretch.  Blasphemy is intentional insult to God.  Jesus has only claimed to be the Messiah.  This could only be blasphemy in any sense if the claim were false—even then the charge would be a stretch, for the defendant may have been delusional, but not intending insult to God.  In any event, we see that the High Priest does not even consider the possibility that Jesus is telling the truth. 
  • Pilate offers the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. Barabbas is a surname meaning “son of the father(s)”. Some ancient manuscripts of Matthew record Barabbas’ first name: Jesus.  This by itself is unremarkable, because “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua,” which was a very common Jewish name in the first century.  But it heightens the contrast of the choice: Pilate gives the crowd the option of Jesus, Son of the Father; or Jesus “Bar-abbas,” son of the father.  One is a healer, the other a killer.
  • On the cross, Jesus cries out the first line of Psalm 22: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?”  This is not a cry of utter despair, because Jesus knows how the Psalm ends and also of his resurrection (Matt 16:21). But it is a cry of suffering.  The crowd thinks he is crying for Elijah, because they cannot understand the Hebrew that Jesus is speaking.  They hear the syllables “Eli-la” and that sounds like “Eli-ya” which was the name Elijah. 
  • They put wine in a sponge and “gave him to drink.”  The Greek word used here indicates that Jesus did drink.  It is something like, “they hydrated him.”  This is the drinking recorded also in the Gospel of John.  I would argue this is Jesus drinking of the fruit of the vine, which he said he would not do at the Last Supper until the kingdom came.  With his death, the kingdom is breaking into history in a new way.  The Gospel of John records that John, representative of the Apostles, was present to witness this drinking of the fruit of the vine.  When we drink of the fruit of the vine, we are proclaiming Jesus death, but also the inbreaking of the kingdom!
  • Matthew alone records the mini-resurrection in the region of Jerusalem that accompanied the raising of Jesus.  This is a sign and anticipation of the final resurrection, which has been made possible by Jesus passion.

All of us have been baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6).  The mystery of the cross makes itself felt in all of our lives.  The Christian life is, in fact, in constant tension between suffering death and being raised to new life.  We can’t hold on to our lives as Christians: the only path forward is constant consent to our own interior (and sometimes exterior) deaths, which constantly leads to interior (and ultimately bodily) resurrection.  It’s not an easy path of salvation and I think I would have preferred God had chosen another, but we must trust that a God who loves us so much as to die for us, also chose for us the best path of salvation.

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