A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
B. Reflection and Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The gentleness of Christ urges us on.
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Gospel for Entrance Procession (Matthew 21:1-11). This reading is about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. One may naturally ask what really occurred on that first occasion, how did Jesus’ earliest followers understand the event, what message has it for us today. As the narrative stands in Matthew’s gospel it comes at the end of a long journey from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem. At Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked his disciples what the people and what they said he was. On behalf of his disciples Peter expressed the belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, according to Mark and Luke, or Christ the Son of the Living God according to Matthew. Jesus did not deny this, but sternly ordered his disciples not to tell anyone about him. Jesus immediately follows up by a prediction of the suffering and rejection he is to undergo (Matthew 16:21). Caesarea Philippi was in non-Jewish, pagan or semi-pagan territory. Matters were different at the Mount of Olives, facing the Holy City and the Temple. Here sites, landmarks and sacred festivals (Passover) had a language all their own; they spoke of prophecy, of Israel’s past, present and future, of the Messiah and Messianic times. The ruling Roman authorities knew this as well, and for Passover would have their armed forces on the alert. A text of the Jewish historian Josephus illustrates the situation. During the governorship of Felix (52-60 A.D.) a self-styled prophet from Egypt came +to the Mount of Olives and promised his followers that at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down. When the Roman governor Felix heard of it he sent his soldiers to deal with the situation. They slew four hundred of the Egyptian’s followers, and captured two hundred others. Jesus’ entry was nothing of this sort. It did not attract attention. But quietly the deep religious significance of the place and event was clear to Jesus and his followers, set against the background of prophecy. The word of the Lord through the prophet (Zechariah 9:9) had proclaimed: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. To make the message clearer Jesus sent his disciples to fetch a young donkey. We do not know whether Jesus had already arranged with the owner for the loan of the animal. There was an explosion of faith and hope in Jesus as Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of David. Unlike at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus does not reject this expression of faith. But by his choice of the humble entry, not as conqueror, he makes clear which of the prophecies he is fulfilling. He was hailed by the crowds in Jerusalem as the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee. He would soon be rejected, but only to triumph as redeemer through the Cross and Resurrection.
First Reading (Isaiah 50:4-7). This is one of the texts of the second part of Isaiah known as the Servant Songs. As intended for the first readers during the exile or shortly after the first return to Palestine, it is not quite clear how the Servant was to be understood: whether an individual person or a collectivity such as God’s people Israel, or idealized Israel, envisaged as she should be. In either case the text gives the example of a suffering, patient pers+on, with mind and heart open to God, prepared to suffer and learn from this suffering, and thus enabled to bring encouragement to those in a similar condition. Whatever of the original person intended, the passage is rightly taken as a prophecy and as fulfilled in Christ. It is a perfect description of Christ’s patient sufferings and of his mission to bring salvation and comfort.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 21). God is the king of glory; God reigns on his holy throne.
Second Reading (Philippians 2:6-11). In its original setting in the Letter to the Philippians, this well-known hymn is introduced to illustrate Paul’s exhortation to imitate Christ’s humility. He exhorts his readers to be of the same mind, to do nothing from selfish ambition, to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, set before them in this hymn as an example. The emphasis is on Christ’s humility and humiliation, despite his dignity. The hymn may be c++ontrasting Christ, the Second Adam, with the First Adam. Adam, although human (in human form) succumbed to the temptation to be like God. Jesus, though in the form of God (in some translations “his state was divine”) humbled himself to be as all mortals are. The hymn ends with an assertion of Jesus’ exaltation, not just at his resurrection and ascension, but all down through all history. It is a profession of faith in the Kingdom of God and of Christ. To him every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
Gospel (Matthew 26:14-27:66; shorter form Matthew 27:11-54). The long Gospel reading gives the narrative from Judas’s plan to betray Jesus on to his death on the cross. It tells of the preparations for the Last Supper, the Supper itself with the institution of the Eucharist, with the bread as his body, the wine as his blood of the covenant, followed by the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, trials and crucifixion, The shorter text goes from the trial before Pilate to Jesus’ death. Mark opened his narrative simply as: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. From early on in the narrative Matthew records the opposition to Jesus, and from the profession of faith at Caesarea Philippi in Jesus by Peter and his disciples Jesus predicts on three occasions the sufferings and death awaiting him in Jerusalem. The stark reality of what lay immediately ahead of him was clear to Jesus in Gethsemane when he prayed to the Father that the “hour” might pass from him (Matthew 26:39), but professed complete obedience to the Father’s will. Jesus’ passion, its implications and message, was central to the Christian message from the beginning. The wisdom of God through the scandal of the cross remained central to the Christian message. The narrative of the institution of the Eucharist and of the accompanying passion and death of Jesus were apparently the earliest continuous account of the Gospel narrative. But Matthew’s intention is not to give a chronicle of events. The evangelist presents the Passion and death as the completion of the good news of Jesus Christ Son of God. After Jesus had breathed his last, Matthew, somewhat similar to Mark, has the pagan centurion and those who were with him exclaim: “Surely this man was God’s Son” (Matthew 27:54).
B. Reflection and Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The gentleness of Christ urges us on
Today’s readings present ample material for reflection. For the greater part they are so clear that they hardly need to be explained. The application of the message of the readings to circumstances of our own day can also be rather easily done.
The first and second readings for the Mass itself present the figure of the Servant of the Lord, presented as an example to be imitated. He has been given a disciple’s tongue. He can speak from the experience of one who has come to know the human condition. He has learned from what he has suffered and experienced himself, and because of this is in a
position to address the wearied. There is today a certain reluctance to endure any suffering, even that which is part of the human condition. In certain quarters and countries we hear of the “quality of life” as a determining factor in decisions, this “quality” at time implying absence of suffering, as if life had no meaning without such absence. This can in some quarters be advanced as ground for ending life.
Another lesson coming across from the first reading and the Passion narrative is the gentleness of Christ, and its call on all to be kind to one another. Pope Francis has recently stressed this aspect of the Christian, and the Church’s message, and his approach has been greeted by the media. The Servant of the Lord, and Jesus meek and humble of heart, have still a message for our own day. Let us pray that the message of Jesus, as presented by Pope Francis, and of the Church, may be listened to in our world of so many divergent voices.
(For reflections on the Sunday and Feast Day readings see Martin McNamara¸ Sunday Readings with Matthew, Dublin, Veritas, 2016)