There is a lot of scripture this week, as the liturgy covers both Palm Sunday and the Passion of Jesus, with each reading worth a time to reflect on what it shows of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. The length of these notes will be doubled, but still not be able do full justice to all the texts we will be hearing.
Palm Procession Luke 19:28-40
This selection will be heard at the blessing of the palms. Curiously for us who call this ‘Palm’ Sunday and receive blessed pieces of palm, Luke leaves out ‘leafy branches’ or ‘palms’ –found in the three other gospels. Perhaps he saw it as Jewish custom his Gentile audience would not appreciate. The story of the colt seems the first of several instances of Jesus’ fore-knowledge of what will happen during this decisive period of his life. ‘The Master’ in our text translates the Greek word for ‘Lord’ `(kyrios) which is used in some other translations; ‘Master’ to some extent weakens the mystery of this event. We are not told anything about the owner of the colt who is shown so ready to respond to God’s call. ‘Kyrie’ – the one who needs the colt – could mean ‘God’ as it often is in the Greek text. Or does the owner respond to what he knows of Jesus who is often called ‘the Lord’ in Luke?
The first words of the crowd, ‘Blessed is the one coming….’ are from Psalm 118/119:25-26. The following words differ in the four gospels; Luke, like John, has him proclaimed ‘King’ and leaves out the ‘son of David’ which is in Matthew and Mark, perhaps again Luke thinks of a Gentile audience. The same reason goes with omitting ‘Hosanna’. Luke instead echoes the song of the angels in his Nativity story. Only Luke adds the objections of the Pharisees and Jesus saying at such a moment even the stones would acclaim him. (Our readings omit verses 41-44, where Jesus weeps over the city he is entering, knowing it is headed for destruction after his death.)
This is one of the four sections of what are often called the ‘Servant Songs’ of Second Isaiah, which in various ways were applied to Christ. The Servant, like Jesus, was proclaiming God’s word, but was persecuted. He does not fight back, but has serene confidence in God coming to his aid, as Jesus will confidently hand over his spirit to the Father in Luke’s account.
Psalm 21  8-9, 17-20, 23-24
In the whole psalm, the early Christians saw a prophecy of Jesus’ death with the poetic description of an innocent one put to torture.
This may be a hymn that St Paul incorporated into his Letter. It has a poetic downward movement from heaven to the depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, and then upward to his final reign when all creation will worship him. Thus it is concise summary of our faith: Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and eternal reign.
Gospel Luke 22:14 to 23:53
This long selection is usually read at mass by several lectors with the congregation reciting the lines that in the gospel are spoken by more than one person. This means that we are putting ourselves among the accusers. This may feel painful, but has the effect of reminding us that ‘all have sinned and fallen short’ and that Christ’s death was for all of us.
All the first three gospels tell the passion in a similar narrative, starting from the ‘Last Supper’ through the entombment, but with individual variations. In Year C we hear Luke and these notes will show the differences with the other three. Some characteristics of Luke: Jesus is shown in command even while arrested and executed. He is, as in his whole Gospel, gentle with the disciples for their failures. There are echoes of the Old Testament and of what Jesus has done in his ministry. Writing to those living under Roman rule rather than Jewish, he does not stress the role of Roman officials in the crucifixion.
As Jesus sits down with his Apostles the night before he dies, he emphasises the Passover nature of the meal, while predicting his suffering and death. He holds out the promise that all will be ‘fulfilled’ or ‘accomplished’ – meaning it will find its true meaning, in the final Kingdom of God. There are three cups of wine at a Jewish Passover meal and the breaking and sharing of the unleavened bread was part of the ritual, and linked specifically to the Exodus redemption. After the meal, a last cup was drunk and Jesus gives it a new meaning of opening a new covenant, replacing the old covenant made with Moses. This has a reference to Jeremiah’s prediction. This covenant is made with Jesus’ blood and not an animal sacrifice as in the old Law.
All the first gospels present the Eucharist in the simplest of words with no elaboration of the meaning.
The Passover was a joyful feast, but Jesus’ warning of his departure must have given the disciples a solemn sense of something else. At the end Jesus takes this to a deeper sorrow – the betrayal of one the apostles. Luke had earlier said that Satan had entered into the heart of Judas to sell his master to the enemy. While not wanting to be named as the betrayer, the Apostles betray their own lack of understanding by entering into a dispute over who is the greatest. Jesus explains the new authority of his Kingdom as one of service. (These words are acted out in John, where he describes Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper.) Rather than berating them for their pride, Jesus goes on to promise them a place in the coming kingdom.
Simon gets a special treatment in Luke: as Satan has succeeded with Judas, he will now try to corrupt Peter. The image of ‘sifting’ is elsewhere used for purifying, as in shaking out the chaff to leave the grain. Here it is reversed: Satan will try to winnow out the good, and capture Peter through his weakness. Jesus, however, predicts that despite his denials to come, Peter will be strengthened afterwards and have the responsibility of strengthening the others. He next warns them that while in the golden period of their ministry with him when they were fully provided for, in the future they will have to take some responsibility for necessities. He probably meant the ‘sword’ as a metaphor for he will not allow it to be used later. Thus there may be irony in his final words – ‘It is enough.’ Or as some suggest, it means, ‘Enough of that!’
Luke has a shorter account of the Agony in Gethsemane than Matthew or Mark, and is always gentle with the disciples’ failures. The words about the ‘sweat like drops of blood’ are missing in many manuscripts, and are not in the other gospels. If they are an authentic remembrance, they stress the depth of the physical and emotional suffering of the Lord. Jesus does not blame the Apostles for their sleeping but tells them to pray not to be tested. (Prayer has been emphasized throughout Luke.)
Judas, knowing where Jesus stays outside Jerusalem, brings the arresting party which the armed Apostles try to resist. Jesus, having accepted his death, halts their action and heals the wounded man, another example of his mercy and coming to serve. While not allowing violence, Jesus does insist on his innocence and the cowardice of coming to him by stealth. ‘The reign of darkness’ seems another indication of the ‘cosmic battle’ as Luke sees beyond the actions of men – satanic powers of evil were striving to prevent the saving work of the Father through Jesus.
Luke does not describe the scattering of the apostles as do the other writers. Peter’s denials are portrayed dramatically, with Jesus catching his eye on the last. As he weeps at the end Luke leaves him with the pain of his remorse and only later will we see him ‘strengthened’ as predicted, and ready to lead the others. (Luke gives many examples of his leadership in Acts of the Apostles.)
In the questioning by the council (the Sanhedrin) Jesus again takes the lead of pointing out where the accusers are going wrong. He does not confirm or deny that he is the Messiah/Christ, but uses the name he prefers for himself, ‘the Son of Man’. Only in Luke does the council press forward the identity ‘Son of God’. Jesus gives the enigmatic answer, ‘You are the one saying this,’ but Luke has used this title from early in the Gospel so here it does not mean a denial of that title. He points out that they are the ones speaking those words, a kind of irony. The council find this vague answer enough to convict him of blasphemy.
But a different charge must be laid before the civil authority, so they accuse him of activities that the readers of the gospel know to be lies. Pilate seems unimpressed and declares him guiltless, but takes the chance to pass the responsibility over to Herod. This incident is only in Luke, who has said earlier that one of the women disciples, Joanna, was married to Herod’s steward and she may have been the source of his information. Jesus seems to show utter contempt for Herod, the one who had put John the Baptist to death. Herod seems only to want a miracle to amaze him, not to understand Jesus or know his teaching, not how he heals compassionately rather wants to see him ‘work wonders’. Herod reacts to Jesus’ silence with mockery, dressing him in the white that should indicate kingship, but contemptuously sends him back like a criminal. Perhaps it was this grim humour that brought friendship between the two sceptical rulers.
Pilate persists in finding no case against Jesus, but is not willing to risk a riot and therefore condemns a man he knows is innocent to a painful death. Others have more pity. Although Simon from Cyrene was compelled into the service of carrying the cross, the remembrance of his name suggests he learned something from this. (Mark names his sons, suggesting they were disciples he knew.) Jesus, who had earlier wept over Jerusalem, meets some women weeping to see him, but instead of comfort, he repeats his warning of coming disaster for the Jewish nation.
None of the evangelists wants to linger over the horrors of death by crucifixion, well known at that time. There is more focus on the mockery and reactions of the crowd. As he healed an enemy at the arrest, Jesus in Luke asks forgiveness for the executors, perhaps seeing them as soldiers carrying out their duty without any knowledge of the man they kill. The four gospels give differing words for Jesus on the cross; Luke again stresses Jesus’ forgiveness, as he promises to take a repentant criminal with him to Paradise. His last sentence is one of absolute trust, quoting Psalm 31/32.
After Jesus dies, Mark and Matthew have the centurion call him ‘truly the Son of God’, but Luke has already said that in his gospel, and here the Roman finds him ‘just’ – a word Luke has used for the pious Jews like Zachary and Elizabeth, and which has Old Testament associations. It may have been important to stress to Luke’s largely Gentile readers that Christ was recognized by a Roman official as one not deserving of death, but worthy of praise.
The burial of Jesus is in a new empty tomb, rather than thrown into a pit with other criminals. This makes it clear t hat there could be no mistake when the tomb is found empty on Easter morning. The faithful women use this interval prepare spices to anoint him later – that activity was not permitted on the Sabbath. The liturgy leaves Jesus in the tomb, an invitation for us to find time for deeper reflection on the Passion.
With the Easter Triduum commemorations beginning on Holy Thursday, the liturgy will return to the Last Supper, and go through the passion again on Good Friday and then be ready on Saturday night prepare to acclaim his resurrection.
I have read a number of commentaries on these events. For those interested in an in depth comparison of the four Gospels, Raymond E. Brown’s two volume work, The Death of the Messiah, covers every aspect of the passion narratives.