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Palm Sunday Of The Lord's Passion, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, Year C

Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24: Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23:56 

In 1892, a German biblical scholar, Bernhard Duhm, in his study of Isaiah 40-55, isolated four poems or songs that rap or sing of the Servant of the Lord. They are found in Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. Much of the material in these songs details the sufferings of an unnamed Servant of the Lord. The identity of the Servant has been debated. Is it Israel as a people, as a nation? One of the Kings of Judah? One of the prophets, especially Jeremiah? Was it the prophet who composed these songs, who is called Deutero-Isaiah? Our concern here is the Christian interpretation — that these songs are predictive of the birth, life, mission, suffering, death, and final vindication or exaltation of Jesus. Today’s first reading is the third of these Servant Songs.

Some details of these songs are so close to the details of Jesus’ suffering and death that the author has sometimes been called the Fifth Evangelist (gospel author). Small wonder that Christian teachers and writers interpreted the songs as predictive of Jesus. Whether they are or not, one thing is certain — that St. Paul, the authors of our gospels, and the authors of other New Testament documents knew these poems and formed their theology about Jesus under their influence. It should be noted that none of the gospels in the form in which we now have them were written by eyewitnesses. Therefore the authors used previous documents, oral tradition, and especially the Old Testament to form the Passion Narratives as we have them today. For example, from today’s first reading, hear the echoes of our Passion Narratives, “I made no resistance. Neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard. I did not cover my face against insult and spitting.”

The Responsorial Psalm, 22, is a fitting sequel to the first reading. The opening verse is well known because Mark, followed by Matthew, puts this verse into the mouth of a dying Jesus, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” The gospel authors found the words of the mockers of the crucified Jesus in this Psalm. Here we also find the piercing of hands and feet, the dividing of Jesus’ garments, the casting of lots for the seamless robe. Even if we have a problem with seeing this Psalm and the Servant Songs as predictive of Jesus, that was not the original intent of their authors. Nevertheless, in God’s providence and under the direction of the Holy Spirit, they were given new meaning and applied in a new way by our New Testament authors.

The second reading is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The reading consists of an early Christian hymn or song called “The Christ Hymn.” The content of the hymn is the abasement or disgracing of Jesus followed by his exaltation. Paul adapted this hymn to deal with a problem he had with some members of the Christian Church at Philippi in Greece. His founding of this Christian Community during his second missionary journey in the early fifties of the first Christian century is described in Acts 16. Women were prominent in that church, but a problem arose. Who is Number One? It was a question that Jesus’ own disciples had argued about, when Jesus corrected them with a lesson in humility. Here it is Paul who gives a lesson in humility by citing the humility of Jesus. Although he was in the form of God, he did not make a big deal out of this. Instead he took on the nature of a servant (slave) out of obedience even to the point of death. Because of his humility and obedience God exalted him above all creation. The lesson for the bickering Philippian Christians — if it worked for Jesus, it will work for you. Matthew 23:12, “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Although our four Passion Narratives have much in common, they all have their individual characteristics and themes. In the Passion Narrative of Luke, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and consolation stand out. Luke’s gospel could well be called “the Gospel of Healing.” Some examples occurring only in Luke’s gospel. At the Last Supper Jesus reaches out in reconciliation to Simon Peter even before he publicly denies knowing Jesus, “Simon, Simon! Satan demanded to have you . . ., but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail, and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” Only in Luke does an angel appear to Jesus to strengthen and console him in the garden. Luke does not allow the traitor to kiss Jesus, but cites only Judas’ intention, “He drew near to kiss him.” Only in Luke does Jesus heal the ear of the high priest’s slave, thus becoming the first to reattach a body part, something that took the medical profession many more centuries to perfect.

Reconciliation between politicians may be difficult to imagine today, but in Luke’s gospel, Pilate and Herod Antipas, former enemies, are reconciled to each other through Jesus’ presence before both. En route to Calvary, Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem, “who bewailed and lamented him.” While Jesus was being nailed to the cross, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In all the Passion Narratives two criminals are crucified next to Jesus. Only in Luke does one of them repent, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” It was noted above that in Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ last words were the first verse of Psalm 22, “My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?” Luke has before him a scroll of the Gospel of Mark. He is not pleased with Mark’s concept of Jesus’ last words. Instead he chooses the healing words of Psalm 31:5, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” It has been said that Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is intended to present Jesus as the first Christian Saint. If that be the case, the portrayal of Jesus as healer, reconciler, forgiver, consoler demonstrates how Christians meet their final suffering and death — forgiving all and united with God’s will.