Scripture and the Liturgy

Jesus Cheered, then Jeered: Bipolar 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 a 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 completely innocent man ever to live is executed.  What does it all mean?

Despite a few mysterious prophetic texts that seemed to intimate this possibility (Isaiah 52:13–53:12; Dan 9:26), 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 (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 12:7-8 and parallels), 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 (of course!).  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 Luke 22:14-23:56.  There is so much going on in this passage, it is impossible to comment on it all.  Just a few remarks:

  • In his account of the Institution of the Eucharist, Luke stresses Our Lord’s insistence that he would not eat or drink again until the coming of the kingdom.  This sets us up to appreciate the significance of the meals Jesus shares with the Apostles after his resurrection (Acts 10:42).  They indicate that the kingdom has indeed come.  The Church is the manifestation of the kingdom on earth.
  • Luke also stresses the identification of the Eucharistic elements as the new covenant itself: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” that is, consisting of my blood, Jesus says.  Luke alone records Jesus saying “new covenant,” a rare phrase that occurs only one place in the Old Testament, in Jer 31:31.  Jesus clearly means to indicate that the promised new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 (worth re-reading!) is being fulfilled here and now.  The new covenant IS Jesus’ body and blood.  As Scott Hahn is fond of pointing out, the new covenant is not a book, but a sacrament.  The Eucharist is the new covenant, full stop.  That’s worth pondering.  Since a covenant is the extension of kinship by oath, what better oath-ritual could there be than to actually have the covenant members eat the flesh and blood of the covenant-maker.  You are what you eat!  We are Jesus!  No, seriously.  Ponder these verses: Gal 2:20, Acts 9:4.
  • Jesus actually confers the kingdom on the shoulders of the Apostles, who are his 12 officers over the Kingdom (see 1 Kings 4:7), right at the Last Supper.  The Greek word used is actually the verb, “to make a covenant.”  Jesus literally “covenants” the kingdom to the Apostles.  This shows us the close relationship between the new covenant and the kingdom, which becomes visible in the Church.
  • The promise of thrones to the Apostles is fulfilled and manifest in their successors the bishops, who sit on their kathedra and judge the various “tribes” of the reconstituted Israel.
  • Simon Peter’s weakness and authority both come to light.  Jesus knows he will flee (weakness) but commissions him to regather the other apostles when he comes to his senses (authority).  The whole history of the Papacy is wrapped up in those few verses.
  • The threefold denial of Our Lord is a round number.  Jesus meant: deny me at least three times.  Actually, Peter made many formal and informal denials during the whole process.  The different Gospels are selective, and sometimes choose different episodes as examples of the “three denials.”
  • Jesus response to the Council when questioned about being the Messiah: “You say that I am,” is not as ambiguous as it sounds to us.  It’s clearly an affirmation and they understood it as such.  It’s a bit like our English idiom, “You said it!”
  • Luke records Pilate trying to evade condemning Jesus by sending him to Herod (a descendant of Herod the great).  Pilate clearly doesn’t think Jesus has done anything wrong, and uses several techniques to try to get Jesus off the hook, like making the crowd choose between Jesus and a hated terrorist (Barabbas).  Nonetheless, Pilate cannot be excused for capitulating to the unjust demands of the crowd.  It was a failure of fortitude.
  • Luke records Jesus’ last words as “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” a quote from Psalm 31:5.  It is a todah Psalm, very similar to Psalm 22, and with the same significance.  Much of Psalm 31 sounds like a description of Jesus’ sufferings on the cross, yet it ends with triumph.  Jesus knew he would be vindicated by a resurrection (Matt 16:21).
  • Luke alone records the words of the centurion proclaiming the innocence of Jesus, probably because he knew his Greek-speaking Roman readers would appreciate the testimony of a relatively high-ranking military officer.
  • The “linen cloth” that Joseph uses to wrap the body of Jesus is often thought to be the Shroud of Turin, that amazing cloth which seems to have taken a snapshot of the deceased body of Jesus just prior to his resurrection.

All of us have been baptised 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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