Biblical commentators tell us that the passion narratives were the first parts of the Jesus story to be proclaimed. Each evangelist approaches the narrative with his unique perspective from the context of his own Christian community. Today we hear the account of Jesus’ last days from Matthew’s perspective, in which human weakness and failure are exposed. The narrative begins with Judas’ betrayal and later Peter’s denial -- despite the fact that at the supper Peter protested to Jesus, “I will never deny you.” But he does and so do the rest of the disciples. Instead of keeping watch during Jesus’ agony in the garden, all fall asleep. Pilate is weak and the chief priests and elders show they are less committed to God and more to preserving their own privileged status.
Here, Jesus is not merely a victim of forces more powerful than he. He may seem to be a defenseless victim, but as we listen to the entire passion account, it is clear that he is very much in charge of his fate, making his own decisions. He hands himself over to those who have come for him and allows them to decide his fate. His passion concretely speaks the words of Isaiah: "I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting."
Jesus is the “Suffering Servant” who speaks to a people enslaved. Their exile is that of weakness and failure. Jesus reaches out to them in solidarity. But they would rather stay imprisoned in their own notions of God and holiness - and of what’s right and wrong. They are trapped in their own self-righteousness. And despite the hostility he meets, Jesus remains faithful to his calling to “speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”
Jesus’ strong sense of commitment to the task entrusted to him comes from the interior strength God renews in him each day. He discovers for himself and proclaims to others the God who is always willing to speak again and always willing to forgive. And that is the God we meet during Holy Week, as we are present to Jesus’s living out of his role as God’s servant.
The word “passion” has roots in words meaning “suffering” and “being acted upon.” There are many people in our world who suffer or have been victimized at the mercy of others. Today we find ourselves in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, which heightens our sense of fear and helplessness. But we also suffer from the pressures of political, economic and social systems, which drain our energy and suffocate our faith.
Still, we must always identify with Jesus, receiving strength from his endurance under his own passion.
“Passion,” in English, also suggests strong feelings. In this sense Jesus was an initiator, one who felt strongly about what he was to do and went about doing it. He was a passionate lover of God and of humanity, and this passion energized and forged his determination to continue on the path God gave him: to preach God’s love for the outsider. No opposition could prevent this passionate savior from completing his task for us, even if it meant his death.
The Passion of Christ is not just a past event that we look back upon. We’re not just recalling the past. Our proclamation of the Passion must affect our present and our future.
Jesus comes to us when our hope is shattered and we want to walk away. He comes to us in the poor and the sick and the frightened and the lonely. He comes to us when we grow weak and feeble because of old age or illness, and he lifts us up with the assurance that he will stay with us through the valley of death until we, too, will rise with him to the fullness of life.
We come to Holy Week not to focus on the Crucified Christ in sadness and sorrow, but to worship the Risen and Living Lord, who challenges us, who transforms us, and who enables us to be courageous witnesses of his presence to others.