We enter the Church’s most sacred week, Holy Week, this year in circumstances that have no precedent, prevented as we are from any public ceremony and burdened by the anxiety caused by the pandemic and all the other restrictions that have followed in its train. We are, perhaps then, in the mood to hear the very sombre account of Jesus’ Passion as described by St. Matthew.
But not only do we have the longest of the all the Passion accounts as Gospel. A wealth of Scripture comes before it to set the tone.
First, after the blessing of the palms, there is the Gospel of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. What is distinctive of St. Matthew’s account is the stress upon the way Jesus fulfils Scripture (a blend of Isa 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9) by riding into the city on a colt. (So anxious, actually, is Matthew to have Jesus fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah exactly that he actually has him riding both the she-ass and her colt at the same time!) What Matthew wants to bring out is the truth that, though Jesus is entering David’s city as its Messianic king and is rightly acclaimed as such by his disciples, he is not doing so in the way of worldly rulers. They would enter seated on a magnificent white charger. He is coming in the way Scripture had foretold he would: riding the mount of the common people. He chooses this mode of entry to make clear that he comes not as one who will lord it over people but, as the Son of Man who has come, “not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). This agrees with the presentation of Jesus as the “Servant” figure throughout the gospel (8:17; cf. Isa 53:4; 12:15-21; cf. Isa 42:1-4).
The First Reading set down for the Mass, Isaiah 50:4-9), is in fact the third of the Songs of the Servant of the Lord recorded in the latter half of the Book of Isaiah. All four will be read during Holy Week, culminating in the reading of the last and greatest, Isa 52:13–53:12, on Good Friday. These four texts, in which the personal fate of the prophet and that of Israel are mysteriously intertwined, have from the beginning been central to Christian interpretation of Jesus’ passion and death. For the early believers they provided the “script” for the sufferings of Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44-45; Acts 8:30-35), which otherwise were totally unforeseen in Jewish messianic expectation.
In the Second Reading, Phil 2:6-11, St. Paul quotes what seems to be a hymn from an early Christian liturgy. The sense of Christ’s status—divine and human—that emerges from this text at such an early stage of Christian history, only a few decades after his all too human death upon a cross, is quite remarkable. What the hymn points to is that at three stages of his “career”—pre-incarnate, incarnate up to death, and post-resurrection—the disposition of Christ is to pour himself out in self-emptying love. The “obedience unto death” displayed in his passion is absolutely continuous with the divine outpouring of love that led to the incarnation of the one whose nature was divine. The hymn thus provides the essential background and accompaniment to our consideration of the Passion of Jesus throughout Holy Week: behind every word, gesture and suffering is the outreach of God’s love to an alienated world.
St. Matthew’s account of the Passion follows that of St. Mark very closely but with certain additions that bring out an issue Matthew particularly wishes to stress. In the biblical tradition which Matthew inherited and of which he is so conscious, the shedding of innocent blood was considered a monstrous crime; guilt for shedding innocent blood could adhere to towns and communities down entire generations. If such a crime occurred, it was essential to find the perpetrator and carry out the prescribed punishment and ritual so that the guilt would not remain a stain and pollution upon the community as a whole. Matthew invites us to contemplate the arrest and eventual execution of Jesus from this point of view—as a shedding of the most innocent blood the world has ever known. This haunting issue lends the Matthean Passion narrative great dramatic power—which is why it has inspired works of high art down the ages (such as, in music, J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion).
So Matthew lingers on persons and episodes central to this issue. Most prominent is the tragic figure of Judas. We are told not only of his betrayal of Jesus but also of his subsequent remorse and his futile attempt to cleanse himself of guilt by getting the chief priests to take back the blood-money (27:3-10). The priests will have none of this. Nonetheless, anxious to avoid any guilt themselves, they use the money for a philanthropic purpose (buying a plot of land as a burying place for strangers). Judas meanwhile, unable to forgive himself and unable, it would seem, to believe that he might find forgiveness and a fresh start with Jesus, goes off and hangs himself.
Peter, by contrast, when he hears the cock crow after his third denial, realizes what he has done and “goes out and weeps bitterly”. He is overcome with sorrow and shame but somehow the fact that Jesus had foretold his failure, allows him to see it gathered up within the overall divine plan. He does not despair but awaits a better day.
Pilate, warned by his wife to have nothing to do with “that innocent man” (27:19), washes his hands before the crowd, saying “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (27:24), which of course he is not. Finally, the people as a whole answer, “His blood be upon us and upon our children” (27:25). No verse in scripture has caused more suffering than this one. None needs such careful handling in preaching and interpretation. In no sense does this cry, terrible as it is, mean that the crowd is taking upon itself responsibility for the death of Jesus down the generations, so that in some way the responsibility would fall upon Jewish people for all time. This would be a monstrous misinterpretation. Matthew’s gospel was written shortly after the Fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies in 70 CE. Many other Jewish writings of the time cast about for a reason for that calamity. For Matthew the reason is that the citizens of Jerusalem, urged on by their leaders, called down upon themselves “and their children” responsibility for the innocent blood of Jesus. “Their children” refers strictly to the coming generation—the generation that would be in its mature years at the time when Jerusalem fell to the Romans. There is absolutely no suggestion that the responsiblity should somehow continue on or that it should adhere to the Jewish people as a whole. This needs to be made expressly clear.
Early in the Passion narrative, when Jesus is arrested, one of his companions attempts to resist violently, cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s slave (26:51). Jesus’ rebukes him, pointing out that, if he wanted, he could appeal to his Father for twelve legions of angels (26:52-53). But then he adds, “How then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (26:54). This makes clear the absolute freedom with which he goes to his death—the freedom of self-sacrificial love. All that will happen—the betrayal, the miscarriage of justice, the shedding of innocent blood: all this evil—is gathered up and overcome by an overwhelming act of divine love, foretold in the scriptures. Even as Jesus dies there is already a hint of love’s victory as the earthquake and opening of tombs foreshadows the resurrection (27:50-54).