It is hard to believe that next Sunday is Palm Sunday, or officially “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion,” according to the Missal. For those of you of pre-1970 vintage, last Sunday (or Sunday Five of Lent) used to be known as Passion Sunday, when the statues and crosses were covered in purple until the Gloria of the Mass of the Easter Vigil. The last Sunday of Lent was known simply as Palm Sunday, and like today, it has two proclamations of the Gospel: the festive entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem where palms and other plants and cloaks were spread out before his feet, and the solemn proclamation of the Gospel of the Passion. In earlier days the Passion of St. Matthew was always read on Palm Sunday; with the present day cycle the three Synoptic Gospels are read in their appropriate years, and the Passion of St. John is always read on Good Friday.
I have provided a link here to all four of this weekend’s Scripture proclamations. It would be my hope that you have a chance to reflect upon them in any format, with particular emphasis upon St. Luke’s Gospel, as this is the narrative Gospel of Cycle C this year. Today I will just highlight some of Luke’s unique theological insights into his narratives. For starters, Luke depicts the Last Supper as a Passover Meal (22:15), as do Mark and Matthew—John does not, in order to put the time of Jesus’ death at the time of the pre-Passover lambs’ butchering in the Temple. Joel Green (757) notes Jesus’ proclamation that he would not eat this Passover “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” This is a critical point in Luke, that Jesus’ death was preordained in history and revelation, a point not fully grasped after his Resurrection when Jesus explains the Scripture to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter.
Luke describes Jesus as taking the opportunity after the main courses of the dinner to talk rather pointedly about his mission and the purpose of his death. He discusses servanthood when his table mates break into an argument about which is the greatest. (What bad timing.) John will expand this into the famous scene of the washing of the feet, proclaimed at the Holy Thursday evening Mass. In 22:28 Jesus pays respect to his men for “being with him” in his trials, (refer back to yesterday’s morality post and the meaning of being “with Jesus”) and he promises them glory as leaders of the restored Twelve Tribes of Israel. The literary irony here is that on the next day, as Jesus hung upon the cross, none of these new “leaders” are to be found. Quite the contrary, a career criminal makes a dramatic confession and plea to be remembered, and Jesus tells him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Another theme of Luke: extraordinary mercy, as seen earlier in Luke’s parable of the loving father and his two sons.
Luke records Jesus’ prediction that Peter would betray him that night, but Jesus goes on to talk about the need for preparedness, to the point of obtaining weapons. (22:35-38) He seems to reference coming confrontation. Green identifies two upcoming battles: (1) the aim of Satan to thwart the divine purpose; and (2) the physical hostility the disciples will face as they continue their post Resurrection missionary work. It is important to note that unlike last year’s Passion account from Mark, Luke is writing his Gospel about a decade after the bloody four-year suppression of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Luke thus already knew how ugly things would get in the generations after the Last Supper.
It is no accident that only Luke has a Good Friday account of women weeping over Jesus as he carries his cross to Golgotha. Jesus, despite his difficulties, stops to address them: “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us;’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Green interprets this text as Jesus redirecting their tears, away from him and toward the city of Jerusalem itself which will be punished for rejecting the Messiah and attempting to thwart God’s plan. Luke, of course, in his writing already knew that this fate had indeed fallen, and it would focus the Christian psyche upon Rome, and no longer Jerusalem.
Going back to the evening dinner, Jesus and his disciples proceed to the Mount of Olives for the episode we often call “The Agony in the Garden.” The prayer of Jesus is real; he is not asking for relief from his coming test but strength to meet it head on. Luke alone makes the point that Jesus sweated profusely, “like drops of blood,” but Green observes that this is the sweat of an athlete already engaged in the world’s most serious combat. The presence of angels suggests that this is the final apocalyptic battle of God’s Son over the massed power of the world’s evil. And even in the moment of his arrest—a rather violent encounter where one man lost his ear—Jesus extends mercy to the wounded representative by a restorative healing. This, too, appears only in Luke.
One of the truly unusual features of Luke’s passion narrative is Pilate’s decision to send Jesus to Herod. (Luke 23: 6-12) This episode is recorded nowhere else, though it is memorialized in the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, where Herod sings, “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” In actuality Green finds that Rome was very reluctant to get involved in what Pilate interpreted as something of an intramural religious dispute, and thus very happy to pass Jesus to another jurisdiction, so to speak. A second point of this episode is the opportunity of the Jewish leadership to again show its true colors, as Luke writes that in the presence of Herod they protested “vehemently” against Jesus. In this Gospel Herod has already played a not insignificant role. He had John the Baptist beheaded, expressed an interest in seeing Jesus (Luke 9: 7-9) and later expressed a desire to kill him (Luke 13:31). In the end, Herod proves to be just another unbeliever looking for signs as proofs, and Jesus remains silent throughout.
I have here attempted to highlight some of the portions of the Passion Narrative that are unique to Luke, our evangelist in the C Cycle. I have only scratched the surface, and I hope that you do have the opportunity to reflect at greater length on Sunday’s Passion account, not simply from academic curiosity but with a burning conviction to pray and stand “with Jesus” as you fight your own cosmic battles with the evils of the world.
For those of you who wish to pursue advanced reading, Joel Green’s commentary, our house source, (pp. 744-831) is excellent; the link is on the home page of the blog. For other sources, progressing from easiest to most challenging, I might suggest A Crucified Christ in Holy Week by Father Raymond Brown; Luke: Artist and Theologian, Passion Account as Literature by Father Robert Karris; The Passion According to Luke: A Redaction Study of Luke’s Soteriology by Father Jerome Neyrey, and finally the massive The Death of the Messiah by Father Brown. (I see my review of this last work in 2004 is still on its Amazon page.)