by Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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The Reading of Our Lord's Passion
According to Matthew 26:14-27:66
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Narrator: The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew. One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said,
Speaker: “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”
Narrator: They paid him thirty pieces of silver, and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over. On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples approached Jesus and said,
Speaker: “Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
Narrator: He said,
Jesus: “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The teacher says, “My appointed time draws near; in your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”’”
Narrator: The disciples then did as Jesus had ordered, and prepared the Passover. When it was evening, he reclined at table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said,
Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
Narrator: Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another,
Speaker: “Surely it is not I, Lord?”
Narrator: He said in reply,
Jesus: “He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me. The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
Narrator: Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply,
Speaker: “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”
Narrator: He answered,
Jesus: “You have said so.”
Narrator: While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said,
Jesus: “Take and eat; this is my body.”
Narrator: Then he took a cup, gave thanks, an gave it to them, saying,
Jesus: “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.”
Narrator: Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them,
Jesus: “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed; but after I have been raise up, I shall go before you to Galilee.”
Narrator: Peter said to him in reply,
Speaker: “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.”
Narrator: Jesus said to him,
Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.”
Narrator: Peter said to him,
Speaker: “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.”
Narrator: He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them,
Jesus: “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.”
Narrator: He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying,
Jesus: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
Narrator: When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter,
Jesus: “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Narrator: Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again,
Jesus: “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!”
Narrator: Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. The he returned to his disciples and said to them,
Jesus: “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.”
Narrator: While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived, accompanied by a large crowd, with swords and clubs, who had come from the chief priests and the elders of the people. His betrayer had arranged a sign with them, saying,
Speaker: “The man I shall kiss is the one; arrest him.”
Narrator: Immediately he went over to Jesus and said,
Speaker: “Hail, Rabbi!”
Narrator: and he kissed him. Jesus answered him,
Jesus: “Friend, do what you have come for.”
Narrator: Then stepping forward they laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. And behold, one of those who accompanied Jesus put his hand to his sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. The Jesus said to him,
Jesus: “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. D you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?”
Narrator: At that hour Jesus said to the crowds,
Jesus: “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to seize me? Did after day I sat teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me. But al this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled.”
Narrator: Then all the disciples left him and fled. Those who had arrested Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter was following him at a distance as far as the high priest’s courtyard, and going inside he sat down with the servants to see the outcome. The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward who stated,
Chorus: “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three says rebuild it.’”
Narrator: The high priest rose and addressed him,
Speaker: “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?”
Narrator: But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him,
Speaker: “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Narrator: Jesus said to him in reply,
Jesus: “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ’the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’”
Narrator: Then the high priest tore his robes and said,
Speaker: “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?”
Narrator: They said in reply,
Chorus: “He deserves to die!”
Narrator: Then they spat in his face and struck him, while some slapped him, saying,
Chorus: “Prophesy for us, Christ; who is it that struck you?”
Narrator: Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. One of the maids came over to him and said,
Chorus: “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.”
Narrator: But he denied it in front of everyone, saying,
Speaker: “I do not know what you are talking about!”
Narrator: As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him and said to those who were there,
Chorus: “This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.”
Narrator: Again he denied it with an oath,
Speaker: “I do not know the man!”
Narrator: A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter,
Chorus: “Surely you too are one of them; even your speech gives you away.”
Narrator: At that he began to curse and to swear,
Speaker: “I do not know the man.”
Narrator: And immediately a cock crowed. Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly. When it was morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying,
Speaker: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”
Narrator: They said,
Chorus: “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.”
Narrator: Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. The chief priests gathered up the money, but said,
Chorus: “It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood.”
Narrator: After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood.” Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of a man with a price on his head, a price set by some of the Israelites, and they paid it out for the potter’s field just as the Lord had commanded me.
Narrator: Now Jesus stood before the governor, and he questioned him,
Speaker: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Narrator: Jesus said,
Jesus: “You say so.”
Narrator: And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him,
Speaker: “Do you not hear how many things they are testifying against you?”
Narrator: But he did not answer him one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Now on the occasion of the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had assembled, Pilate said to them,
Speaker: “Which one do you want me to release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus called Christ?
Narrator: For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed him over. While he was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.” The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas but to destroy Jesus. The governor said to them in reply,
Speaker: “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?”
Narrator: They answered,
Narrator: Pilate said to them,
Speaker: “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Christ?”
Narrator: They all said,
Chorus: “Let him be crucified!”
Narrator: But he said,
Speaker: “Why? What evil has he done?”
Chorus: “Let him be crucified!”
Narrator: When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying,
Speaker: “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.”
Narrator: And the whole people said in reply,
Chorus: “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”
Narrator: Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the Praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped off his clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about him. Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying,
Chorus: “Hail, King of the Jews!”
Narrator: They spat upon him and took the reed ad kept striking him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him. As they were going out, they met a Cyrenian named Simon: this man they pressed into service to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha – which means Place of the Skull – they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink. After they had crucified him, they divided his garments bv casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left. Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying,
Chorus: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, and come down from the cross!”
Narrator: Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said,
Chorus: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God; let him deliver his now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
narrator: The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way. From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
Jesus: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”
Narrator: Which means,
Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Narrator: Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
Chorus: “This one is calling for Elijah.”
Narrator: Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. But the rest said,
Chorus: “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.”
Narrator: But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit.
Here all kneel and pause for a short time.
Narrator: And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said,
Chorus: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
Narrator: There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb. The next day, the one following the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said,
Chorus: “Sir we remember that this impostor while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raise up.’ Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ This last imposture would be worse than the first.”
Narrator: Pilate said to them,
Speaker: “The guard is yours; go, secure it as best you can.”
Narrator: So they went and secured the tomb by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.
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It is the morning of Good Friday and onto the sunlit portico steps Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, to judge between the Just One and Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer. Pilate knows that he is in a very difficult situation: If he releases our blessed Lord, a riot will ensue and Pilate will have to answer to his superiors in Rome for his lack of leadership and discipline over Roman subjects in Palestine. Meanwhile, releasing Barabbas means sending an innocent man (Jesus) to his death. St. Matthew’s Gospel rendition of the Passion indicates that Pilate is keenly aware that the Jewish elders want Jesus killed out of envy.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once wrote that in each of us, our conscience is the tribunal of Pilate. Each day, Christ comes before that tribunal as virtue, honesty and purity. Barabbas presents himself as vice, dishonesty and impurity. Whenever I speak uncharitably, act dishonestly or consent to an evil thought, I say, like Pilate, “Release unto me Barabbas.” That choice and those choices throughout my life are what crucify Jesus time and again. Whenever I act virtuously, I beg for Jesus’ life and lighten the load He carries in the world for me. Ironically, Barabbas literally means, “Son of the Father.” So, Pilate is asking the crowd to choose between Jesus, the true Son of the Father and Barabbas, whose name carries the exact same literal meaning. And yet, our blessed Lord and Barabbas could not be more different. In the same way, the human person’s conscience must decide between good and evil, even if in their estimation, the two might appear to be very similar, at least in name. Temptations from outside and man’s internal disordered desires wounded by original sin often cause him to struggle to distinguish between good and evil. Pilate’s struggle to act justly can often be our own.
It is convenient to relegate the events of the Passion and death of Jesus as mere historical occurrences that carry no immediate consequences for my life. I can appreciate the ultimate love that Jesus shows by His decision to lay down His life for me, but I can do so as a mere spectator or casual observer of heroism and great altruism. The real challenge of entering deeply into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death is found in my willingness to assimilate these events as deeply consequential for me, in a personal way. This idea was not lost on St. Paul who wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
Pious and devout participation in the liturgies of the sacred triduum is perhaps one of the best ways to enter deeply into the paschal mystery. The joy of Easter is more pronounced when one has spent time in liturgical and personal prayer over the preceding three days from Holy Thursday through the Easter Vigil. The ritualization of these events evokes in us the proper sentiments to allow the mystery of Christ’s love for us to penetrate our souls. It is in learning to die with Jesus that we rise with Him in glory. May we allow these words to become more than a pious phrase but authentically descriptive of our discipleship.
Somewhere, a prominent historian once observed that the death of Christ on the cross was “mercifully quick.” The comment haunts. Though there seems to be a hint of blasphemy in the remark, it is true that the length of time Jesus endured His passion doesn’t come close to the length of time Maximilian Kolbe, for example, suffered in Auschwitz. For that matter, terminally ill cancer patients often endure severe and chronic pain for weeks and months. What do these comparisons suggest as we reflect on the Passion of Christ on Palm Sunday and Holy Week?
Consider first the various forms of suffering. When a person cuts a finger slicing potatoes, the initial pain may be negligible despite the severity of the wound, although the throbs may begin in short order. At other times one may suffer very little physical pain, but endure intense anguish in mind and spirit.
A person diagnosed with a serious illness requiring surgery may find himself consumed with worry, fearing a medical procedure that promises a cure even though anesthesia will eliminate any physical suffering during surgery.
Then, too, the prospect of a slow and painful recovery can cause him more inner turmoil than the actual experience of rehabilitation. Pain of soul in anticipation of suffering is usually far worse than physical pain.
There is another curious form of suffering that is more observably related to building personal character. It is the willful acceptance of suffering that, in effect, tests our desire and ability to succeed. The athlete, the scholar, the businessman and politician — indeed those seeking excellence and success — know this type of suffering. The prospect of failure is more painful than the pain of stretched muscles, pounding hearts and mental exhaustion.
Although the sufferings of Christ during His Passion can be compared to such “normal” forms of human suffering, His sufferings are of a completely different order.
Hints of this new order of suffering can be found in the Gospel of St. John: “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:17-18). An extraordinary and mysterious revelation.
The suffering of Christ was not passive; it was an active and a positive choice. In choosing to bear the weight of all of our sins — all the evil committed from man’s beginning to the end of time — the inner suffering of Christ becomes unimaginable. Suffering is the result and sign of sin — our own sins, the sins of others, and in a most mysterious way, the result of original sin. If the death of Christ was comparatively “quick,” it could hardly be described as “mercifully” so, for our many sins are merciless. In choosing to suffer, Christ did not choose evil, nor did He sin. All suffering is a mystery and is the experience of evil. Hence, the suffering of Christ — and all human suffering — is, a deeply disturbing sign of evil. This helps us begin to understand St. Paul when he writes, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
From the depths of our souls mired in sin, we are given the dignity to choose the Passion of Christ in freedom and with courage. For “whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). There can never be compromises with evil, and suffering forces us to choose. Such suffering might tempt us to blaspheme, to “curse God and die” (as Job’s wife proposed). Or it can — as it must — lead us, with God’s grace, into the heart of the mysterious Passion of Christ.
St. Paul speaks from the spiritual heights of this holy endeavor: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the church … .” (Col 1:24). Later he adds, using the metaphor of a champion, “For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me….” (2 Tim 4:6-8).
How dare we make these words our own. The thought of suffering is repellent, and most of us fail in the simplest of our Lenten resolutions. We complain. We know the great difficulty of accepting the sufferings of everyday life, even before we voluntarily bring upon ourselves largely symbolic Lenten mortification. We might easily give in to discouragement if not for Christ Himself in His overflowing mercy and generosity. In Gethsemane, Jesus excuses us: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).
Despite our weakness, with willing spirits the mortifications of Lent and our meditation on the Passion of Christ reinforce our resolve to continue the arduous earthly pilgrimage; to freely accept — without sinful resentment and despair — the unavoidable sufferings of life. If we so choose, with God’s grace we can, in our imperfect way, join Christ on the Cross. We too, in the sufferings of our body, are given the privilege of making up for “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” In Christ, our suffering ceases to be an unholy sign of evil. The suffering of the martyrs in union with Christ on the Cross — including our own suffering — is transformed into a saving sacrament of His love.
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