Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion — According to St. Matthew

SCRIPTURES & ART: This Sunday, we hear about three of Matthew’s unique details about the fate of Judas, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the guard at the tomb — along with the Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911), “Christ in Gethsmane”
Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911), “Christ in Gethsmane” (photo: Public Domain)

Palm Sunday is the only time during the year that a Mass has two Gospels. Because this is “Palm Sunday,” there can be at the beginning of Mass a formal processional entrance into the church, bearing palms. In that case, the priest reads the Gospel describing Jesus’ solemn entrance into Jerusalem, when people “cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road” (Matthew 21:8).

But, like the first Palm Sunday, Jesus’ popular acclaim on entering Jerusalem also leads within a week to his passion and death. That’s why the Church titles today as “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” And that is why the Gospel read at Mass today is always the account of Jesus’ passion and death, from the Last Supper to his entombment, taken from one of the Synoptics — in 2023, Matthew. (The Gospel on Good Friday will always be from the Passion according to John.)

The three Synoptics — Matthew, Mark and Luke — coincide in the main details of Jesus’ passion and death. They include his Last Supper, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest there, some element of Jesus’ illegal night trial before the Jews, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ official trial before Pilate, the Way of the Cross, the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and his burial. (It would be a good exercise today or in the first days of Holy Week to read Mark and Luke’s accounts).

Since the Synoptics’ account of Jesus’ passion and death agree so much, it might be interesting to note the details that are unique to Matthew, the author of today’s Gospel. I would note three: the fate of Judas; the question of when does the Holy Spirit come; and the posting of a guard at Jesus’ tomb.

The Fate of Judas. All the Gospels identify Judas as the traitor who, for money, colludes with the Jerusalem religious establishment seeking to kill Jesus. They speak of him leading the arresting party to Gethsemane and identifying Jesus by kissing him.

Matthew’s is the only Gospel that speaks of Judas’ fate. Matthew 27:3-10 portrays Judas as experiencing remorse when he learns Jesus is condemned to death. He tries to return the bribe he got for betraying Christ, admitting “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” The Temple authorities throw the guilt in Judas’ face — “What is that to us? Look to it yourself!” Judas reciprocates by throwing the money into the Temple. He then “went off and hanged himself.”

Remorse is not contrition; it is a feeling of guilt for having done something wrong, but it does not entail repentance. I can feel guilt and still cling to my wrongdoing, even by refusing to seek forgiveness.

The Temple’s Jewish establishment collects the money strewn on the floor, recognizing it cannot put blood money back into the Temple treasury. So they use it to buy a plot of land to bury strangers, a “potter’s field” for foreigners and, in today’s world, unknowns or indigents. As is typical of Matthew, he cites the Old Testament to prove to his Jewish readers that Jesus was the fulfillment of their religious expectations.

Although Matthew (27:9-10) cites Jeremiah, the “quotation” Matthew uses is more a conflation of two separate texts from the prophet. In Jeremiah 32:6-9, God commands Jeremiah to perform the symbolic act of buying a field just as Jerusalem is about to be destroyed and the Jews carried into Babylonian Exile. In Jeremiah 19:1-15, God command Jeremiah to buy a potter’s jar and go into the Hinnom Valley in Jerusalem and smash it to symbolize the coming doom upon Israel from the hands of the Babylonians because of Israel’s infidelities. The Hinnom Valley is the site of Jeremiah’s actions because it was a place where, when Israel worshiped pagan idols and had sacrificed children to them.

While Matthew “quotes” Jeremiah, there are other Old Testament echoes to be heard here, too. Zechariah 11 also speaks of infidelity to God’s covenant, where Israel pays Yahweh the shepherd 30 pieces of silver when he breaks his protection and he throws the money to a potter (vv. 12-13). Thirty pieces of silver was not a large sum: it was the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32). Joseph’s brothers sold him for even less — 20 pieces (see Genesis 37:28).

So Judas is presented as having turned Jesus over for a paltry sum, an amount he didn’t even attempt to bargain upwards, suggesting the malice that drove him. And while no one can know the content of another’s final moments before God at the moment of death, neither the Christian tradition nor even Christ’s own words (for him who betrays the Son of Man it would “be better for him if he had not been born” — Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21) suggest optimism about Judas’ fate.

The Coming of the Holy Spirit. We Catholics tend to imagine a composite “life of Jesus,” made up of the details found in some or all of the Gospels. In that composite view, Jesus dies, rises, ascends, and sends the Holy Spirit. That’s true — but not completely.

Pentecost is the definitive gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s detailed in Acts 2:1-13. Acts is part two of Luke’s two-part work, written for “Theophilus” (Acts 1:1, Luke 1:1-4) to establish the “certainty” of the Christian message he received.

In John, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to his Apostles on Easter Sunday night. He breathes on them to “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22-23) for the purpose of forgiving sins. That gift of the Holy Spirit, distinct from Pentecost (which we generally equate with the sacrament of Confirmation), is intended to empower priests to absolve sinners in the sacrament of Penance.

In Matthew, the Holy Spirit breaks into the world at the moment Jesus dies. Jesus “cried out in a loud voice and gave up his spirit” (27:50). He died. But let us remember the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, so he gave up “his Spirit” … and amazing things begin happening, things only Matthew recounts.

The “veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.” The veil was an extremely thick and heavy brocade in Jerusalem’s Temple that shielded its innermost sanctum — the Holy of Holies, regarded as the dwelling place of God — from men. The rending of the sanctuary veil indicates that whatever separated God from man is now destroyed. God and man are not separate: God and man are one in Christ, the Incarnate Son of God. And because, by baptism, we are made “sons in the Son,” we too are at peace through the blood of his Cross (Ephesians 2:14; Colossians 1:20). That could only happen as the work of the Holy Spirit, who first rent that veil when the Power of the Most High overshadowed Mary and Jesus was conceived.

“Tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints … were raised.” From a Jewish and Christian perspective, death is a consequence and punishment for sin. It is the final enemy to be vanquished. Jesus has already been pointing to its conquest: two weeks ago, the Gospel spoke of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus showed that our mortal body is to take on immortality, so that death is shorn of its sting, when the Gospel spoke of his Transfiguration five weeks ago. So, for graves to open and the dead to rise is the redeeming power of Jesus’ Spirit, already going out into and creating a new earth.

For Matthew, a new age — the final age — for man has begun.

Posting of a Guard. Matthew notes that the Temple authorities remained afraid of Jesus even after his death. That’s why they go to Pilate to ask for guards to watch Christ’s Tomb. Just as they refused to accept the evidence of their eyes that Jesus had healed the man born blind and raised Lazarus to life, so they are convinced that Jesus and his disciples threaten them by imposture even now. So they obtain a security detail to monitor Jesus’ Grave. On Sunday, we’ll see how — just as their response to Lazarus’ rising intensified their plans to kill him — Jesus’ rising will have them resort (again) to bribery to conceal the Truth.

My choice of illustration to depict today’s Gospel focuses on a moment in Jesus’ passion common to all the Gospels — the Synoptics and John — Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. All the Gospels speak of Jesus going there with his Apostles after the Last Supper. They speak of his praying there prior to Judas’ betrayal. The depiction is Heinrich Hofmann’s “Christ in Gethsemane.”

I selected it for three reasons:

  • it depicts a key element in Jesus’ passion, the theme of today’s Gospel;
  • the image is popular and commonly known to many people; and
  • it hangs in New York’s Riverside Church.

Hofmann was a popular painter of late 19th/early 20th century Germany. He was classically trained and spent time in Italy, being exposed to the Nazarene art movement there as well as blending classical Renaissance principles with art traditions from northern Europe. When he returned to Germany, he made a name for himself in religious painting. “Christ in Gethsemane,” like another well-known Hofmann work, “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” both date from the 1880s. Both were originally bought by John D. Rockefeller, who gifted them to the neo-Gothic Riverside Church in Manhattan (at Riverside Drive and West 120th Street).

The gloom of Gethsemane is accentuated by the blues and other dark colors of the painting. The sole sources of light are two: Jesus and his Father in heaven, illustrated by the light in the sky that illuminates the rock next to which he is praying. Jesus lifts up his eyes to his Heavenly Father, realizing his Father’s will does not lead him around Calvary but through it. His abandonment is apparent: to the right, behind his back, one can make out a dozing disciple but, otherwise, Jesus is alone. That’s not strictly true. His Father is always with him but he also experiences the psychological abandonment of sin: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”

Margaret Turek’s Atonement makes clear why Jesus cannot circumvent Calvary. It’s not that his Father’s justice is such that he “demands his pound of flesh.” It is that man, choosing to do evil, chooses to create a situation in God’s relationship with man in which God can neither just acquiesce nor ignore. In healing the separation of man from God, man (including the God-Man, Jesus, who bore this for us) must experience the suffering of alienation and abandonment not as “freedom” from God but as the anguish that one who loves God freely bears in the justly deserved separation sin imposes. In a certain sense, he also experiences the distance God feels from sinful man with the longing God desires to fix that rift.

The Jesus who resigns himself to his Father’s will is not acquiescing in a stubborn Father; he recognizes and shares the will of his Father that to “fix” sin is not to ignore it or wish it away, but to “undo” it by now freely bearing in union with God the suffering of loss, of “abandonment” that was once freely borne in separation from him.

The liturgies of Holy Week and especially the Paschal Triduum are among the most sacred moments of the Church year: use this week well!

Pope Francis presided over Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square on April 2, 2023.

Full Text: Pope Francis’ Homily for Palm Sunday 2023

‘Brothers and sisters, a love like this, embracing us totally and to the very end, a love of Jesus like this, has the capacity to turn our stony hearts into hearts of flesh, and make them capable of mercy, tenderness and compassion.’