Is there a week in the year that rivals the beauty and power of Holy Week? To paraphrase the Haggadah, why is this world-wide celebration different from all other weeks of the year?
Like the Jewish observance of Passover, Christians recall, relive, and celebrate the Pasch, the Paschal Mystery of the Lord. Christians will be engaged in reliving the drama of the world’s salvation even in countries that repress religious freedom. The faithful will listen to the centuries-old narrative of the Exodus event, to that of the prophets foretelling the adversity of the Suffering-Servant-Messiah, and to the witness of the disciples to the Resurrection of the Lord.
During this week, the entire person is raised up through the liturgy which sensitizes our seeing, hearing and singing, tasting, smelling, and especially in touching the Word of Life. Christians participate in the circular movement that first descended to us in the Incarnation and ascends in return to God through the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord. In the process, the Christian can be transformed into a new and beautiful creation. This spectacular reality comes alive, for example, in the Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and in Händel’s Messiah where the words tell us what to think and the music, what to feel.
Predictions of the Paschal Mystery in Hebrew Scriptures
Jesus predicted his passion and death to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament. The most explicit of these are found in Isaiah, chapters 50-53, but at least one hundred of them are scattered throughout the Old Testament detailing Jesus’ final hours. In fact, centuries before Christ, they predicted that the expected Messiah would be despised and rejected by men and would suffer as a just man (Ps 22, 24, 60; Isaiah, ch 53, Ez 37:1-15; in 2 Macc 7:57; 4 Macc 6:27-29; 17:12; 18:4, and Is 53). The idea of the Suffering Servant-Messiah ran through these prophecies, and in the New Testament, scriptural verses support those in the Old. Jesus is the only historical figure who has fulfilled these uncanny prophecies, some of which are given below:
1. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king riding on an ass (Zech 9:9, Mt 21:5).
2. He was betrayed by a friend (Ps 41:9, Jn 13:21) and sold for thirty pieces of silver (Zech 11:12, Mt 26:15; Lk 22:5). These pieces of silver were given for the potter’s field and cast in the temple (Zech 11:13, Mt 27:9-10).
3. His friends deserted him (Zech 13:7, Mt 26:56), and others gave false witness about him (Ps 35:11, Mt 26:60).
4. In his last hours, he was spat upon and scourged (Is 50:6, 53:5, Mt 27:26,30) and struck on the cheek (Micah 5:1, Mt 27:30).
5. The Messiah was called the sacrificial lamb (Is 53:5, Jn 1:29 who was given up for a new covenant (Is 42:6; Jer 31:31-34, Rom 11:27; Gal 3:17, 424; Heb 8:6, 8,10;10:16, 29; 12:24; 13:20);
6. He was despised, rejected by men (Is 53:3:1-6), the one who bore “our grief” (Is 53:4, 6); “and with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5).
Other details of the final hours of the Lord’s passion and death are remarkably prescient:
1. He was rejected by his own (Is 53:3, Mt 21:42; Mark 8:31, 12:10; Luke 9:22, 17:25). “All we like sheep ... all that see him laugh him to scorn (Is 53, 5, 7); He trusted in God (Ps 22: 8); “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” (Ps 49 21); Behold and see if there be any sorrow (Lamentations 1:12); “Behold the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29).
2. He was crucified with criminals (Is53:12, Mt 27:35); his body was pierced (Zech 12:10; Ps 22:16, Jn 20:25, 27).
3. He expressed thirst during execution (Ps 22:16, Jn 19:28) and was given vinegar and gall for thirst (Ps 69:21, Mt 27:34).
4. Soldiers gambled for his garment (Ps 22:18, Mt 27:35).
5. People mocked him, “He trusted in God, let Him deliver him (Ps 22:7-8, Mt 27:43). They sat there looking at him (Ps 22:17, Mt 27:36).
6. He cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1, Mt 27:46).
7. No bones broken (Ps 34:20; Num 9:12, Jn 19:33-36, but his side was pierced (Zech 12:10, Jn 19:34).
8. Darkness covered the land (Amos 8:9, Mt 27:45).
9. He was buried with the rich (Is 53:9, Mt 27:57, 60).
10. He ascended to right hand of God (Ps 68:18, Lk 24:51); his glory is predicted (Mal 2:2-3; Lk 3:17).
The Human and Divine
Jesus’ passion and death is to be considered on two levels, the human and the divine. Its human context is found in malice. On Palm Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem to celebrate the Pasch knowing full well that he will suffer because of the mounting hostility against him. After all, he blasphemed claiming to be the Son of God. In the course of observing these holy days, the events quickly unravel before our eyes.
Institution of the Eucharist and the Washing of Feet
Jesus’ last celebration of the Passover began like others. However, on this night, a substantial change takes place. The words Jesus speaks will become the hallmark of Catholic faith. He takes and blesses the life-blood of the Jews symbolized by unleavened bread and the wine–the one, symbolizing the bread of affliction, the manna of the desert, and the other, symbolizing the blood of the slaughtered lamb (Ex 12:8).
He inserts new words accompanying the action giving new meaning and content to the ceremony. When he breaks the bread and says: “This is my body ... ” he shares the sacred food with the Twelve. At the third cup of wine, the cup of blessing and consecration, Jesus declares: “This is the cup of my blood ... ” He gives it to them to drink. Though the eye sees no change, the believing heart grasps the truth.
In the Jewish Passover, the bread, wine, and the sacrificial roasted lamb were offered, blessed, and consumed by the children of Israel to seal their union with God. The Exodus prepared the nation for two events: the covenant on Mt. Sinai and the anticipation of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God. Similarly, in the Eucharist, the same signs and symbols are used–bread, wine, and Jesus, the sacrificial lamb. The act of memorial does not simply recall the Last Supper. The action of Christ is singular, without precedent, and without metaphor or analogy in the entire Jewish tradition even though it emerges from the tradition.
The meal becomes a lasting memorial of Jesus’ love and the context for a lesson the Apostles will not forget. The washing of feet was the typical task of a slave. Why, Peter wonders, does the Master insist on washing his feet? He recoils, but Jesus admonishes him: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me” (Jn 13:8). Peter is free to refuse, but Jesus presses for his consent. If Peter wants to unite himself with his Master, then he must renounce power and choose a servile but loving act. Peter realizes that what Jesus has done for and to him, he Peter must repeat to and for others. He too must share in the Lord’s redemptive work for the sake of others. Henceforth, the mandate given to Peter will be a loving service for Christian discipleship.
The events following the Supper confront us as chaotic treachery, chicanery, and cowardice. The logic of Good Friday contradicts all human logic. What novelist could have imagined this scenario? The story is wild, inconceivable, and appalling. In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-11), the divine plan of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery hovers over universal redemption. Christianity proclaims that Jesus saves us all by canceling out Adam’s pride and disobedience with humility and obedience. As a result, we are redeemed liberated but not without our cooperation with God’s grace. He pieces our brokenness. St. Paul saw in the Passover the mystery of Christ, both in figure and symbol. As the Jews glory in the saving events of Passover, so too Christians glory in the cross of the Lord Jesus, for in him is our salvation, our life, and resurrection. How many times have we heard that his suffering of love is undertaken pro me and pro nobis!
All have been saved and made free, and each of us is a player on the stage of this drama, as Shakespeare puts it so well. On stage, there are no static, gaping stand-ins, no extras, and no absentees. We are Peter and Judas, the thieves on the cross, the crowds and the guards–all in need of God’s mercy. We are Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the beloved disciple, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.
To the universal question, why suffering, we respond: there is no satisfactory answer. The cross has always contradicted human logic. It is folly, a scandal, a stumbling-block (1Cor 1: 21-22). Suffering hurts, does violence to our sensibilities. In a particular way, the Book of Exodus initiates us into God’s folly, God’s logic. Despite God’s command that Moses seek the release the Jews, Moses is forewarned. God will make the ruler obstinate so that he will refuse the request. God will thwart the plan given to Moses. When all seems lost, God’s inscrutable logic steps in. It saves the Jews in the Passover-Exodus event. God’s foolish plan is wiser than Moses’ logic. The Jewish Exodus was all God’s work.
The lesson is simple, if maddening. Like the Israelites, we do not save ourselves in the way we want but by God’s providential power and our cooperation with it expressed as “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5)–the attitude which was Christ’s (1 Cor 2:5 ). Suffering has no satisfactory answer, but Jesus, in his human nature, shows us how to suffer. Without the suffering of love, acceptance of pain is a mindless and servile act.
Contemporary logic, which boasts of self-sufficiency, rejects Christ’s suffering of love. But Jesus helps his disciples to make sense out of suffering, not according to the human way of thinking, but according to his. He brings his followers to the cross and, sooner or later, expects us to understand it as christological logic. Despite Paul’s emphatic declaration that the cross is God’s wisdom and power to save (1 Cor 1:17, 25; 2:5), St. Catherine of Siena, in her Dialogue, gives us a tender response: “Oh, Loving Madman! Was it not enough for Thee to become Incarnate, that Thou must also die?” On September 14th, the Church “lifts high the cross” because God’s weakness and folly prove stronger and wiser than that of creatures. For the disciple of Christ, the only logic is that of love. Love alone makes suffering credible, bearable, and beautiful.
The Resurrection: the Glory of the Lord
The folly of the cross is the glory of the Lord (Phil 2: 9-11). The cross of Jesus was his resurrection. His life was the candle that burned itself out in order to give its light to all. The folly of human suffering becomes our glory, but we see this after the fact. In Psalm 22, we see the faithful soul suffering and forsaken, but we also see that soul who places itself entirely in the hands of the Lord who will deliver it.
The Psalm closes with the afflicted one praising the Lord. On the cross, Jesus manifested the meaning of Psalm 22 in his prayer to the Father. Jesus foretold his last hours on the cross: “If I be lifted up, I will draw all things to myself” (Jn 12:32). In raising up Jesus, the Father transforms his death into glory. As the Son breathes out his Spirit, the Father glorifies him and proclaims him to be Lord of the universe. The circular motion is complete. The whole of creation is raised with him in resurrection glory.