Is 50, 4-7
Phil 2, 6-11
Mt 26, 14 - 27, 66
The liturgy of the Word on Palm Sunday invites us to contemplate Jesus, who “was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on the cross!” (Phil 2, 7-8) The event of the passion and death of the Lord, narrated and meditated in the gospel of Matthew, in effect, constitutes today the centre of attraction of the biblical readings. The two pericopes that precede the gospel narration place us in the right perspective for its reading and offer us the key to its interpretation.
The first reading (Is 50, 4-7) is taken from the third of the four songs of the mysterious “servant of the Lord” of Deutero-Isaiah (cf. Is 42, 1-4; 49, 1-7; 50, 4-9; 52, 13 - 53, 12). Various answers were given to the question of the Ethiopian to Philip on the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, in Acts 8, 34: “Of whom the prophet says this – himself or someone else?” Some authors think that the servant denotes the people of Israel or its faithful part as servant of God; others identify it with Jeremiah suffering with the Persian king Cyrus (cf. Is 45, 1), or with the same prophet; those who see different servants in these songs are not lacking (Israel, the faithful remnant, the prophet, etc.). In the first Christian communities, the songs of the Servant are applied to Jesus (cf. Mt 8, 17; 12, 18-21; Lk 22, 37; Acts 8, 32-33) and some of its characteristics appear in the baptism and the transfiguration of the Lord. But the figure of the servant is also used to speak of Israel (Lk 1, 54) or of the disciples of Jesus (Mt 5, 14.16.39; Acts 14, 37; 26, 17-18).
In any case, the figure of the servant is, in reality, a sketch of Jesus-Messiah who, as prophet, not only announced the word to the weary (Is 50, 4), but he is the same divine Word in the midst of men and women. The servant is not only the man of the word, but also the man of pain. One of his more characteristic feature is suffering: they beat his back like a fool, he who is the wise man par excellence, bearer of the word; they cover him with contempt (insults, spittle, they tore at his beard). But he does not resist, instead faces the pain consciously, trusting in the help and protection of God, with the security that he will not be let down. In him, suffering acquires a new meaning in relation to the traditional thought: it is the consequence of his ministry and, paradoxically, the proof, not of rejection, but of divine election.
The second reading (Phil 2, 6-11) is a poetic hymn probably of liturgical origin. Even if other analyses are possible, it seems preferable to divide it basically into two strophes: (I) 2, 6-8: humiliation of Christ, and (II) 2, 9-11: exaltation of Christ. The passover of Christ is presented in a new and original form, through an ascending movement that goes from humiliation up to exaltation. The hymn allows us to contemplate the two faces of Easter, made of pain and of glory, of humiliation and of salvation.
The mystery of the passion-death of Jesus is annihilation, “condition of slave”, concealment of God: Christ, of “divine estate” (Phil 2, 6), “assumed the condition of a slave and became as men are” (Phil 2, 7; cf. 2 Cor 8, 9). His humiliation reaches the extreme when “he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross” (Phil 2, 8). The death on the cross, in effect, is the highest expression of humiliation in the Roman world; it is the death proper to slaves and strangers.
Contemporarily, the passion-death of Jesus is positive risk, triumph, resurrection and glorification, complete salvation and “divine name”: the second strophe of the hymn makes it clear that the exaltation is God’s response to the humiliation freely accepted by Christ obedient until the end (2, 9: “Because of this God highly exalted him.”) God exalts his Christ (cf. Jn 3, 14; 8, 28; 12, 32; Acts 2, 33; 5, 31) through the symbolic action of the giving of a name, not of a personal name (Jesus), which he already had in his humiliation, but of a “title” that expresses the new condition of Christ glorified above all other beings. The granting of this title is not realized in the intimacy of God but in public and aims that Jesus be recognized as the Lord, the Kyrios, who expresses his glory and divine sovereignty. The obedience of the Messiah Jesus, lived with absolute freedom, is the way of the new man.
The gospel (Mt 26, 14 - 27, 66) places us before the harshness and the paradoxical simplicity of the narration of the passion and death of the Lord. It deals with a deeply theological account, full of biblical allusions and thought of for liturgical use in the community.
The Passover supper (26, 14-35) reminds us of the gestures and words of Jesus who invites the disciples to eat his body and drink his blood, prophetic signs of the giving-up of his life on the cross, because he wants to share the way and the destiny of his life with them. In the Garden of Gethsemani (26, 36-46), Jesus is the model of the perfect pray-er who experiences the “agony” that the search for and the sincere acceptance of God’s will entail. The disciples are invited to “keep awake” with Jesus, that is, to share with him his destiny adopting his attitude as prayerful and faithful son. At the moment of the arrest (26, 47-56), Jesus, who in the Sermon on the Mount had declared overcame the reprisals and the justice of the law of retaliation in human relationships (cf. Mt 5, 39), manifests again his passionate love for pardon and non-violence.
The Jewish process (26, 57-75) is the occasion of the last and great revelation of Jesus before his people: “From this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The solemn declaration of royalty, messianism and divinity provokes the total rejection of Israel. Paradoxically, while Jesus acknowledges openly his identity as Son and universal judge, one of his disciples, Peter, the first of them, denies his Teacher before the insistent questions of the two servant girls and a group of people.
The Roman process (27, 1-31) makes clear the choice of Israel (Barabbas), the injustice of the authorities of the empire (Pilate) and the sympathy of the pagans (the wife of Pilate). The latter, enlightened by a dream, invites her husband not to interfere in the case of “that holy man” (Mt 27, 19). In effect, Jesus, like the prophets of old and the just men who were persecuted and condemned throughout the biblical history (cf. Mt 23, 29.35), dies for having announced God’s truth in a world of falsity and injustice. In the image of Jesus, object of mockery and offences by the pagans as “king of the Jews”, the characteristics of the humble Messiah (Mt 21, 5) and of the faithful servant, insulted and subjected to cruel tortures (Is 50, 6) are mixed.
The crucifixion (27, 32-50) is the culminating moment of the account. Jesus dies as the just man, persecuted and unjustly tortured (cf. Psalm 22 and 69). Before him, blaspheming humanity pass by (27, 39-44), the powers of the cosmos that announce a divine manifestation (darkness and earthquake, cf. Ex 10, 22; Am 8, 9), the new believers (the centurion), and the new humanity liberated by Christ from death (the dead coming out from their graves).
Jesus dies in total solitude, rejected by men and seemingly abandoned by God. In that abandonment, paradoxically, the supreme communion between the Father and the Son happened. The cross of the Lord is limitless abandonment and donation at the same time. The cry of Jesus (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”) does not only show the extent of the profound solitude and abysmal suffering of the Lord, but also indicates his full confidence in him who can still saves in the most heartrending and mortal of situations. That silence of the cross reveals the infinite communion of the Father and the Son and converts it into good news for all those who, like Jesus, live and die rejected by the world and seemingly abandoned by God.
Only the faith in Jesus, who died and is risen, can give meaning to many human and divine silences that we encounter along the path of our life. It is the faith in Jesus, who died and is risen, that makes the Church to always be with the humiliated, the weak, the oppressed and the crucified of this world. It is the faith in Jesus that moves the Church to carry out its mission after the image of its Lord, in concealment and simplicity, in rejection of power and glory, with the mystique of the cross: in humiliation and pain because of love, fruit of fidelity to the Father, and source of life and liberation for the world and history.