We begin our walk on Palm Sunday, and the reading for the Procession takes us to Jerusalem as the feast of Passover nears (although we read Matthew’s Passion narrative today, we will return to it later). Jesus makes plans to enter the city using a donkey and a colt, which His disciples obtain with the simple reason that “the Master has need of them” (Mt 21:3). Many residents welcome Him enthusiastically, laying their cloaks on the ground and proclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mt 21:9).
What does this all mean? First, we are dealing with the reception of a king: the people lay their cloaks down in front of Jesus, and Jesus invokes the right of a king in acquiring another’s donkey for use. But what sort of king is Jesus? He chooses to ride on a donkey with Zechariah in mind: “Behold, your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, humble, and riding on a donkey” (Zech 9:9). Thus, Jesus is not to be understood as a political Messiah who will overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to its glory days (as the Zealots seemed to yearn for) but as a humble Savior intent on starting a kingdom of peace.
Let us also examine the shouts of “Hosanna!” Its original meaning is “Come to our aid,” or more literally, “Save, please!” but here it is an expression of praise. Both meanings are important for us. Pope Benedict XVI notes that the early Church prayed “Hosanna” in the liturgy because they saw Jesus coming again and again “in the humble form of bread and wine.” In the Eucharist, we worship God, but we also receive God’s grace, His response to our plea to come to our aid and save us. Thus, we ought to more consciously pray “Hosanna” as both praise and petition. We should be excited to welcome the Lord again and again in the Eucharist!
For reflection: Who is Jesus to me? Am I eager to welcome Jesus in the Eucharist? What does his example say to me?
Interlude: The Servant Songs During Holy Week
During the first three weekdays of Holy Week, the lectionary draws significantly from the Prophet Isaiah. This provides an important interlude as we approach the Triduum. Isaiah declares that Israel is God’s servant, called and appointed “as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness” (Isa 42:6-7, Monday). We also hear of a “Suffering Servant,” called from birth, through whom God shows His glory. This Servant “thought [he] had toiled in vain… but [his] reward is with the Lord.” Through this Servant, God’s salvation will “reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:5-6, Tuesday). And again, this Servant is obedient, suffers, and yet remains faithful that God is his help, and he “shall not be put to shame” (Isa 50:7, Wednesday). All of this will be fulfilled in Jesus, the true Suffering Servant and the Light of the World through whom God’s salvation will reach to the ends of the earth. But to see this, we have to look to the Cross, and to the empty tomb.
For reflection: How do I approach suffering? What does it mean to me that Jesus suffers? Am I aware of my vocation to share in Jesus’ mission to be a light to the nations?
Holy Thursday: The Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden
This leads us into the drama of the Triduum. Jesus knows that the hour is reaching His fulfillment. On Holy Thursday, we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but during Holy Week we read two different accounts of Jesus’ last night (Matthew on Palm Sunday, John on Holy Thursday). Here, we will reflect on both accounts together, but let us begin with John.
John notes that Jesus has loved His disciples “to the end” (John 13:1). As this end nears, Jesus sets an example for them by taking the role of a servant and washing His disciples’ feet. This act cannot be glossed over: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow” (John 13:14-15a).
We may identify two takeaways from this: the obvious one is that the essence of discipleship (“followership”) is following Jesus in humility by taking the role of a servant. But the greater takeaway is how deeply this reveals God’s own character. God is indeed all-powerful, but God’s power and love is so great precisely because he makes himself small, because he surrenders everything to save us even when we don’t deserve it.
Oddly, John’s Gospel differs from the Synoptics in that John has no mention of the institution of the Eucharist, which we hear of in Matthew. Why is this so? John has already addressed this in the Bread of Life discourse; here, he wants to focus more on what the Last Supper and Jesus’ death really signify: humility. Jesus has become flesh for us, and now He is surrendering Himself totally for us to the point of death. Yet John recalls in the foot-washing something essential about our Eucharistic faith: Jesus wishes to cleanse us so that we can fully enter into the Eucharistic celebration; He cleanses not only our feet, but our hands and head as well (cf. John 13:10)!
The Agony in the Garden
After the Last Supper, Jesus goes out to pray in a Garden called Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. He passes through the Kidron Valley (Jn 18:1) It was in a garden that Adam and Eve committed the first sin, and it is in a garden that Jesus redeems us. Here, he becomes distressed as he faces abandonment, betrayal, and death (Mt 26:38). Why? Surely he feels “the weight of the world” in the Garden. He knows He has to die, and He knows that His disciples will falter. One scripture scholar recalls that both then and now, the Kidron Valley was essentially a graveyard. The path to Gethsemane, lined with tombs, catacombs, and graves, might have led Jesus to realize, “It might be tonight!” Not only does it help explain the Agony in the Garden, but it also alludes to the fact that Jesus’ Passion will affect many lives. We will later hear in Matthew’s Gospel that at the moment of Jesus’ death, graves are opened and many saints are resurrected (Mt 27:52-53).
The Agony in the Garden also further displays the humility and true identity of Jesus. He is the all-powerful Word of God—He could have saved the world in a different way. As Matthew recalls, Jesus could have called on God’s help and obtained “more than twelve legions of angels” for protection (Mt 26:53). But even at this difficult hour, he is resolved to pray to the Father, “Your will be done” (cf. Mt 26:38,42). He stays the course.
People already knew Jesus was a wise teacher and wonder worker. They called him a Prophet and received him as a king when he entered Jerusalem. But beginning in the Garden, Jesus’ identity is in plain view: As John recalls, Jesus identifies Himself to His opponents saying, “I AM,” and they are driven to the ground (Jn 18:5-6). This clearly echoes the revelation of God to Moses, “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). Thus there can be no doubt at this point that the Word is God (cf. John 1:1). And yet the Eternal Word proceeds humbly to His condemnation and death.
For Reflection: Am I willing to wash other people’s feet? Am I willing to go out of my comfort zone to serve others? When I pray to God, do I try to listen and serve God’s will? Do I prepare for the Eucharist by going to Confession on a regular basis?
We can reflect on many things with Good Friday. For example, there is the scandalous reality of Jesus’ death. Why did He die? When we read Matthew’s Passion alongside John’s, we see how both Gospels point to Jesus’ death as revelatory. Jesus’ gruesome death for us has already been illustrated vividly in artwork and in film, so we will focus less on the physical suffering and more on what this all says about God and our mission and destiny as Christians. For Matthew, Jesus’ death fulfills the Law and scripture. For John, Jesus’ death on the Cross is His coronation, the moment at which He, lifted up, “gather[s] all people to Himself” (cf. John 12:32). In all the Gospels, the Cross is the expression of the love of God.
Let us begin with Matthew. Matthew, as we have seen, emphasizes the abandonment Jesus experiences in Gethsemane, and Jesus continues to experience this on the Cross. Jesus recites the first lines of Psalm 22 (“Why have you forsaken me?”), and seems to be in despair, but He is implying (and praying) the whole Psalm. Therefore Jesus is expressing at once intense loneliness and at the same time conviction that God will deliver him. Yet we cannot pass over this prayer too quickly, for Jesus is experiencing the depth of human abandonment and suffering. He has been rejected by His own people and abandoned by His disciples. The difference is that He knows God will deliver Him in the end.
In truth, this is already happening at the Crucifixion. According to the end of Psalm 22, “all the ends of the earth” and “all the families of nations” will turn to the Lord as God delivers the one in lament (Ps 22:28). At the moment of Jesus’ death, amid the “cosmic portents” of the earth shaking and the veil tearing, a Roman centurion and other soldiers collectively confess that Jesus is surely the Son of God (Mt 27:51-54). In other words, Jesus’ death on the Cross is already drawing the Gentiles to believe and “turn to the Lord,” just as Psalm 22 foresees. John demonstrates this in a different way in recalling that Pilate writes the charge against Jesus (“King of the Jews”) in three languages: Hebrew (Aramaic), Latin, and Greek (Jn 19:20). Thus, the Cross proclaims that Jesus is King in the major languages of the time.
Jesus’ assurance is seen more clearly in John’s version, where Jesus is in control even on the Cross. Thus, Jesus’ last words are: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). He had loved His own “to the end” (John 13:1), and now His love has indeed reached to the end, to the very limit, and even gone beyond it. He knows that His mission is complete.
When precisely did Jesus die? Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John places the Crucifixion on the day of preparation for Passover. The date of Jesus’ death is up for debate, but the theological point for John is clear: Jesus is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf. Jn 1:29), and Pilate even ironically echoes John the Baptist’s proclamation when he declares, “Behold the man!” (Jn 19:5).
For Reflection: In beholding Christ crucified, what does this mean for me? What do I see? As a disciple, do I avoid the Cross? What cross do I have to bear?
Holy Saturday and the Dawning of Easter
God’s victory is by no means apparent. Rather, as we transition from Good Friday into Holy Saturday, we recall the trauma, shock, and scandal of the death of Jesus. The silence we observe for most of Holy Saturday reflects the dashed hopes of the disciples, who seem to be on their way home in disappointment. Yet something is happening in the silence.
In the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday, we read from an ancient homily whose author is unknown. The homily addresses what happens in silence on Holy Saturday during Christ’s “descent into hell”:
Truly, He goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow prisoner Eve from their pains… The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, His cross. ‘I command you: awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead… Rise, let us go hence!’
We celebrate this in a special way during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, during which light suddenly breaks forth in a darkened church. The light grows gradually and steadily until the church is illuminated in splendor. And as the light fills the church, we customarily welcome catechumens into the Church as they receive Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. They are signs of life during this Vigil. But this new life is only part of the good news on this day. The really good news is that in the morning, the tomb where Jesus was laid will be found empty, and the disciples will encounter and believe in the Risen Lord. The dawning of Easter proves once and for all that “love is strong as death” (Song 8:6). Indeed, the resurrection is “the greater strength of love in face of death.”
In the Gospel for Holy Saturday, Jesus tells Mary to relay the message that He is going before them or ahead of them to Galilee. This may seem unimportant, but if we recall that Jesus is the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith (Heb 12:2), then we can more fully appreciate what it means for Jesus to go before us—the literal task of a pioneer.
In the first sense, Jesus is going ahead to meet His dejected disciples, who have already begun to return to their old way of life in Galilee. Jesus is already going ahead of them to Galilee to rehabilitate them so that they can understand why He had to die, and go out to proclaim the Good News that He is risen. Later in Matthew, Jesus will also give them the “great commissioning” (Mt 28:19-20) in Galilee.
In another sense, Jesus goes ahead of all of us from death into eternal life by His perfect faith and obedience. He goes ahead, paving a “new and living way” for us (Heb 10:20). If we recall the Passion narratives we have heard, Jesus dies by entrusting His Spirit to the first believers (Jn 19:30). This foreshadows what will take place on Pentecost, when Jesus sends the Holy Spirit upon all of His disciples (Acts 2, John 20:19-23). During Jesus’ public ministry the Spirit had not yet been given (Jn 7:37-39), but as the Risen Lord, he has been granted all authority (Mt 28:19), and thus can finally bestow the Spirit upon His believers, thereby enabling true faith in Jesus (1 Cor 12:3) and adoption as God’s children (Rom 8:14-17).
For reflection: What does it mean to me to know that Jesus has entered into death and conquered it by rising? Am I walking the path paved by Jesus, or am I trying to make my own way? In what areas of my life might God want to bring new life? Am I aware of what my Baptism and Confirmation mean?
Easter: Looking Backward and Forward
Where is Jesus today? Did He really rise? Unfortunately there are some Christians who call into question the Resurrection because they think the empty tomb is not enough. Some even think of Jesus merely as an enlightened teacher, but not as Risen Lord and Savior. But St. Athanasius, writing many centuries ago, movingly objects to that position: “Dead men cannot take effective action; their power of influence on others lasts only till the grave.” But Jesus is still very much at work. Athanasius asserts:
The Savior is… working mightily among men, every day. He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world… to accept his faith and be obedient to his teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that he has risen and lives, or rather that he is himself the life? …This is the work of One who lives, not of one dead; and more than that, it is the work of God.
Liturgically, the newly initiated Catechumens at the Easter Vigil are enduring signs of Jesus’ power at work today. Likewise, First Communions, Confirmations, ordinations, marriages, and retreats and initiatives that bring about conversion are all signs that Jesus is very much alive and with us today.
Looking back, one cannot help but be moved by the graciousness and goodness of God revealed in Jesus. He entered into our world, making Himself small. He patiently and generously gave freely of Himself unto death, conquered it by rising, and remains with us always, although in a new and different way. Jesus has revealed the depth of God’s love, which is stronger than death. God’s love abides and forgives and renews (cf. 1 Cor 13:1-13). It bears and covers our sins (1 Pet 4:8). It fills our hearts through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Gal 4:6, Rom 5:5).
Jesus also reveals that He is the New Adam: by His obedience He has undone Adam’s disobedience. Thus, He enables us to move forward from that past. But Jesus also enables us to face the future, for He has promised that in consolation or desolation, He “will be with [us] always until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). As Athanasius points out, Jesus is very much working mightily even today; He is clearly faithful to His Word. Assured of His presence, we can face the future, even if it is a difficult one.
For reflection: Where and when have I seen Jesus alive? What might Jesus want to resurrect in me? Where am I in need of hope?
Prayer: Jesus, we confess that You are Lord. We praise You for Your wonderful love and the riches of Your mercy as revealed in Your living, Your dying on the Cross, and Your rising from the grave. Grant us the grace to remain near You always and to become like You. Send forth Your Spirit, the Power from on high and the Bond of Love, to renew us and give us boldness and freedom as the children of God, and to sanctify us in Your truth. Deliver us from every evil, for You are the Savior of the world. Glory be to the Father…
 Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was. Pp. 245-249; Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week. Pp. 4-5: “He is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and a king of simplicity, a king of the poor.”
 Daniel Harrington S.J., The Gospel of Matthew. Sacra Pagina 1. Pp. 294.
 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II. Pp. 9-11.
 Jerome Murphy-O’Connor O.P., “What Really Happened At Gethsemane.” Available online at: http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/easter-04.asp
 Gerald O’Collins S.J. cites this quote by a German theologian in his book Jesus: A Portrait: “God defined himself as love on the cross of Jesus.”
 Father Lohfink asserts that “in all probability” Jesus prayed as much of the whole Psalm as his strength allowed as he died, perhaps by stuttering it in bits or in sections as he was able. See Jesus of Nazareth, Pp. 283-84.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity. Pp. 302
 Francis Moloney S.D.B. argues persuasively from the Greek that Jn 19:30 (“he handed over his spirit”) refers to the handing over of the Spirit; it is not a metaphor for death. The Gospel of John. Sacra Pagina 4. Pp. 504-505, 508-509.
 St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation. Chp 5: The Resurrection, n. 30