Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Holy Week Book - Sunday of the Passion

Note: The three articles called "The Holy Week Book" were prepared for St Matthias' Parish in Holy Week 2008 to provide comments on the readings and the liturgies that could not be provided in the homily. Therefore they reflect the interests of one person at one time.

Saint Matthias’ Anglican Church, Bellwoods Avenue, Toronto
Some Notes on the Readings for the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)
by the Reverend Dr William Craig, Honorary Assistant

From the Blessing and Procession of Palms to the Great Paschal Vigil, the purpose of the liturgies of this Holy Week is that we may enter with joy into the celebration of those mighty acts whereby God give us life and immortality. Our modern liturgies are an adaptation of the rich heritage of rites and practices that have served the Church since about the fourth century, when the keeping of Holy Week began.
The sheer amount of Scripture that is read and sung this Sunday and throughout Holy Week challenges both the preacher and the people to careful reading, study, and reflection before and after attending the liturgies. In Church, it is best to listen and sing, not so much thinking about the words as thinking them, concentrating on them, and receiving them into the depths of our being.
With this end in mind, here are some comments (I fear they are too meagre to be of any real use) on the readings for Palm Sunday. I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of using all the resources one can in studying the Bible. “Commentaries: Revised Common Lectionary” is an excellent resource put online by the Diocese of Montreal. See Another handy resource is a study Bible such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible.

The Liturgy of the Palms

The Gospel of the Palms
The Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is recorded in all four Gospels with minor differences in detail (only John’s gospel specifies that the branches were of palm trees).
We are tempted to think of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as joyous beginning to events that went tragically wrong. But as the introduction to the rite in the Roman Catholic liturgy puts it, “Christ entered in triumph into his own city, to complete his work as Messiah: to suffer, to die, and to rise again”. In this work the notes of suffering, death, and resurrection are one, and cannot be separated. As we enter with joy into this act we see that it was in triumph that he set his face set like a flint and went to his self-offering, and death. Outside of this and without it, the glory of the palms would only be a parade.
It may seem odd that Jesus is described as sitting on the donkey and the colt (verse 7). The Evangelist has apparently misunderstood Zechariah 9.9, in which one animal is described as “a donkey and a colt the foal of a donkey.” This form of speech, called parallelism, is very common in the Hebrew scriptures.
The passage appointed ends with the inhabitants of Jerusalem asking who it is that rides by, and the crowd with Jesus replying, This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. Then it goes on to tell of his cleansing of the temple and his healing blind and lame who were there. It tells us, too, that children in the temple took up the cry of Hosanna (21.15), at which the priests took offence. It is because of this reference that the hymn All glory, laud, and honour says “to whom the lips of children made sweet Hosannas ring”.
The Liturgy of the Passion
A Reading from the Prophet Isaiah
[50.4-9a]: Isaiah prophesied In Judah and Jerusalem between 742 and 687 BC, at the time when the northern Kingdom, Israel, had fallen to Assyria and Judah continued in uneasy “freedom”. Many scholars conclude from differences between chapters 1-39 and 40-66 that the latter part should be attributed to one or more other authors (“Second” and possibly “Third Isaiah”), who wrote at the time of the Return from Exile (ca. 538 BC). A significant feature of Second Isaiah are four passages referred to as the Songs of the Servant of the Lord.
It is not clear whether the prophet intended the figure of the Servant to be Israel as a collective person; a king of the past; or a coming individual Servant. (Note Acts 8.34, where the Ethiopian eunuch asks of one passage whether the prophet “says this about himself or about someone else”). In any case the Christian community very early applied these hymns to Jesus – indeed he seems to have seen them as applying to his vocation as the servant (slave) who frees all people. In Holy Week they are used as a commentary on the passion narrative.
The first of the four songs [42.1-7] describes God's selection of the Servant who will bring justice to earth. Isaiah 42:1-7; the second [49.1-6], written from the Servant's point of view, is an account of having been called by God to lead the nations; The third, the first reading for Passion Sunday, is darker than the others, with a first-person description of beating and abuse of the Servant. Isaiah 50:4-9 The fourth [52.13-53.12] declares that the Servant intercedes for others, taking the punishments and afflictions of others. In the end, he is rewarded with an exalted position. This song is the first reading for Good Friday.
In the third Servant Song, although those to whom God has sent him have rejected him and abused him, the Servant is confident that God is with him. He can set his face like flint, and know that he will not be put to shame. We see the like confidence in Jesus as he goes before the Council and before Pilate, as he is mocked and scourged.

Psalm [31.9-16] One of the categories of Psalms scholars identify as “lament”, by which is meant not a song of mourning but “a song in which an individual seeks deliverance from illness or false accusation, or the nation asks for help in time of distress” [New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 656] Today we use the psalmist’s cry for deliverance from his personal enemies and the confidence in God which ends the selection as a reflection on the first reading, which is in itself a companion to and reflection on the Passion narrative. Compare verse 13, “For I have heard the whispering of the crowd; fear is all around; they put their heads together against me; they plot to take my life,” with Jeremiah 20:10. The prophet has prophesied the people’s doom as the Lord commanded, and says: “I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. ‘Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him’”. The enmity of personal friends is an important theme in Holy Week (see the opening of the Passion Gospel).

A Reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians [2.5-11]: In this passage St Paul quotes an early Christian hymn (to which he has added v. 8b), which beautifully describes our Lord’s self-giving, even to the utterly humiliating death on the Cross. For other fragments of early Christian hymns on the subject of Christ’s work, see 1:15-20; Ephesians 2:14-16; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18-19, 22; Hebrews 1:3. [CAB]. In vv. 1-4, Paul had urged the Philippians, to at one, “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord ...”. Now he explains that this one mind is not his own clever idea: it is the mind of Christ, which we begin to share and display when we replacing self-interest with concern for others.
We tend to interpret the words “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” as referring to the name “Jesus”. While showing reverence at the holy Name is good, that is not what St Paul means here. The “name that is above every name” which God has given Jesus in his exaltation is “Lord”, in Greek Kyrios, which is used in the Old Testament to translate the (unpronounceable) name of God. He means that God has given the Risen Christ the authority which, in the Old Testament, he reserved for himself. (See Isaiah 45:22-25.)

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St Matthew (26.14-27.66). Instead of pretending to give a useful commentary on the Passion Gospel, I shall merely make a few comments on themes that struck me as I came to it again this year.
The most important theme of Matthew’s account of the Passion is that all that happened was in fulfilment of the Scriptures. So, for example, we may think of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (26.15); “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (26.24); the other disciples’ desertion of Jesus (26.31); Jesus’ questioning “how the Scriptures would be fulfilled” if he called on God to save him from arrest (26:54); the purchase of the Potter’s Field with the blood money (27.9)
A fact we must face every Holy Week is the action of Judas Iscariot. How do we understand the working out of God’s plan and the responsibility and freedom of this one person? How do we understand the fact that when he realized what was happening “he repented” (27.3) In Matthew’s account his betrayal is seen as the result of greed. Is this to simple? We may also consider the poignancy of the betrayal. Judas was one of the Twelve (26.14); Jesus had chosen him. At the Last Supper the fact that he sat close enough to dip his hand in the same dish as Jesus (26:23), makes this betrayal particularly poignant and horrific. We are reminded of Psalm 41.9: “Even my best friend, whom I trusted, who broke bread with me, has lifted up his heel and turned against me”, and of Psalm 55.13-15 (compare Matthew 26:23): “For had it been an adversary who taunted me, then I could have borne it; or had it been an enemy who vaunted himself against me, then I could have hidden from him. But it was you, a man after my own heart, my companion, my own familiar friend. We took sweet counsel together, and walked in the throng in the house of God”.
Though it was Judas who handed Jesus over, at the Last Supper all the disciples were overcome with doubt and uncertainty when their Lord said that one of them would betray him. Human weakness, said Origen, makes the uncertain future “an object of dread to us”.
Finally for now, let us note how sparing in detail this account of the Lord’s Passion is; it does not try to manipulate us emotionally by depicting the sufferings of Jesus as a horror. In this it contrasts with many depictions of the Passion, and most notoriously a certain recent film. In our English version we read in 27.26 that Pilate “after flogging Jesus, handed him over to be crucified;” literally it is something like, “and he handed over Jesus, flogged, to be crucified”. Even the soldiers’ mocking of Jesus, their spitting and striking him is got over quickly. The crucifixion itself is buried in a subordinate clause, “After they had crucified him” (27.35). It is fair to add that the first readers and hearers of the Passion story had a far better idea than we do of what crucifixion involved. Nonetheless the sparing accounts in all four Gospels suggest that it is not necessary for us to contemplate too deeply the gory details of our Lord’s Passion.

No comments: