Entry into Jerusalem, Wilhelm Morgner, 1912, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, Germany.
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Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Gospel
Passion (Palm) Sunday
March 28, 2021
The first reading for Passion (Palm) Sunday is the same every year: Isaiah 50:4-7. We reviewed it last year and, as it was during the Pandemic, my comments would not have changed. It will be interesting to look at it again next year when we should be able to see what the new normal has been.
As always, we will read the Passion and let us examine a question about it for which the answer can only be found in the Old Testament and Jewish custom: “Why did Jesus die during Passover week?”
It is difficult to believe that it was an accident, however fortuitous. Jesus and indeed everyone (Mark 14:2) knew that insurrection would be in the air for the Passover and that both Jewish and Roman authorities would be on edge. He could easily have stayed in Galilee or entered surreptitiously. Yet he entered boldly and consciously. Note what follows:
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,(Mk 14:12)
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,
his disciples said to him,
“Where do you want us to go and
prepare for you to eat the Passover
He is preparing to sacrifice his life like the Paschal lamb. Let us look at what this means.
The Passover commemorates the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. It is recounted in Exodus 12. Pharaoh had remained obstinate and would not let the people go from Egypt. Therefore, the LORD would send the angel (messenger) of death to strike down the firstborn of the Egyptians man and beast alike. The Jews would be saved by marking the doors of their houses with the blood of a sacrificed lamb. This was the beginning of the Exodus the journey of freedom for the Jews. To remain who they were, they would need to remember the event and the meaning of it.
Sociologists will tell us that this kind of ritual is necessary for long term social and political survival. This is no doubt true but there is another dimension. Ancient people had a more flexible understanding of time. Some events were so key that they were able to be relived not just remembered. It was possible to ritually participate in the very same act. The Greeks called this anamnesis, the Jews zekar. Jesus and his disciples and indeed Orthodox Jews today believe that they are participating in the Exodus when they celebrate Passover with the appropriate rituals. Jesus understood this and would use it carefully and strategically.
Passover, although it had a sense of sacrifice, the eating of the lamb was always a family meal. Often meals would be with a rabbi, as a spiritual family and they were very structured. The rabbi would bless the first loaf of bread a sign of sharing a common life. To this day we use the word companionship from con (with) pane (bread) for an intimate connection. At the end of the meal, the rabbi would have a special toast expressing his teachings and a special cup of wine would then be drunk.
These meals were ingrained into the very being of Jews of his day. No matter what the disciples would do after Jesus’ death and resurrection he knew that they would do this and so he adapted it to his purposes.
As we can see, most of the distinctive features of the Passover meal were not present in the description of the Last Supper in any of the scriptures, but its spirit is essential. It as the custom for the leader to explain each part of the ritual in terms of the Exodus. His disciples would expect that Jesus would explain his understanding of the Passover to them. They got more than they wished. At the beginning of the meal:
While they were eating, (the appetizers)(Mk 14:22)
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, and gave it to them, and said,
“Take it; this is my body
This would be a bit ambiguous for the moment but strange and would have made the apostles think: “How will we be sharing his body?” This would be a tense meal.
Then at the end of the meal:
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and(Mk 14:23–24)
gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed for many.
This would have been far more understandable and terrifying. Covenant is a relationship with the LORD and neighbor. It is how we become a family. For the Jews this meant that they promised to obey the law and sealed this relationship with the sacrifices in the temple. Jesus is now saying that he will be the means by which the most radical change imaginable will occur. But where how will there be blood?
Mark handles this very skillfully. He does not mention the lamb: the key part of the Passover menu. This is very odd. Passover was not complete until the lamb was eaten. Jesus’ sacrifice will be complete only when his disciples consume him when they celebrate their family meal. Remember their view of history would have told them that they were literally participating in this new Passover. St. Paul makes this more explicit by adding “Do this in remembrance (anannesin) of Me.” (1 Cor 11:23) The sacrifice of his life on Calvary sealed the covenant with Jesus’ blood. We have come to call this celebration the Mass, through which we will participate in this sacrifice until the fullness of time.
As with the Exodus, the meal is the key to this invitation to freedom but not the only aspect. St. John gives us an insight into this. In his account of the Last Supper, read on Holy Thursday, Jesus performs an act of service and washes the feet of his disciples. This too is a sacrifice and one which must be part of our own actions if we are to truly participate in the new Passover. The Mass begins in the Church but to truly follow Jesus it must end in the streets.
Jesus did not arrange for his Passion to occur during the Passover to help theologians better understand the meaning of the Eucharist but for you and me to better live the consequences of the Eucharist. The Passover was not the end of the journey of the Hebrews but the beginning. The Eucharist is the beginning of ours as well. For the Hebrews that journey ended when they conquered the kingdoms of Canaan, for us it will end when we build the kingdom of God.