Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday), April 14, 2019
The middle part of the book of the prophet Isaiah contains four poems that we now call the songs of the suffering servant. Here the prophet meditates on his sufferings and the price of fidelity to God. The church turns to these poems at this time because Jesus apparently did so at the time of his passion.
Saint Paul here adapts an ancient church hymn. It sings of Jesus' pre-existence, his incarnation, suffering, and exaltation.
[Don't do an introduction to the passion.]
The Historical Situation: In the middle section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 40-55, there are four short passages which scholars have called the Songs of the Suffering Servant. They're about a mysterious figure, who sometimes speaks in the first person, and whom God sometimes addresses. Sometimes the Servant is described as a prophet, sometimes as one whose suffering brings about a benefit for the people. In the original author's mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. Jesus saw aspects of his own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs, and the church refers to them in this time of solemn meditation on the climax of Jesus' life.
Proclaiming It: Read the passage to the assembly slowly, meditatively, in as "personal" a tone as you can muster. Read it as if you're the Servant, talking to yourself, trying to remain convinced that the hardship required by fidelity is worth it. Pause before the last sentence, "The Lord God is my help ..." Then proclaim the sentence with firm resolution.
The Literary Background: In the original Greek, this passage has a rhythm that suggests it may be a hymn which Saint Paul is quoting. If so, it may represent a very early Christian understanding of who Jesus is and of how his mission saves us from sin and death. It's something Paul received from those who had been converted to Christ even earlier than he.
(Religious movements have always expressed themselves in song first, before they get around to having their doctrinal debates, heresies, apologists, councils, books, universities, inquisitions, etc. So early hymns offer precious insight into the original genius of the movement. Ideas with a musical expression get down deep into our memories, and our souls, in a way that merely verbal formulas cannot. That's why we remember the words of songs, even nursery songs from forty, sixty, eighty years ago, better than we remember other sentences we've read and heard more recently and more often.)
Christians reading this passage today are joined with the first people who ever pondered the meaning of Jesus' life and mission. We're singing their song, reciting their creed, at the time of year we're remembering the most important things Our Lord did.
The Theological Background: This passage sums up the most important things about Jesus, heedless of the less relevant details. Note the structure of Jesus' life:
The Lector's Proclamation: The early martyrs staked their lives on this kernel of gospel truth. So it demands a solemn proclamation, slow and, if possible, rhythmic. Make it rise to a crescendo at the end, as you summon every tongue, every tongue in heaven and on earth, to proclaim that
As the discussion below from 2015 shows, Stephan Peters diligently searched the Web for online versions of the passion narratives. (I have been remiss in not thanking Stephan publicly until now.) For 2018, I've confirmed his findings, and happily direct you to:
year A, Matthew, long form: p. 16, short form: p. 28 year B, Mark, long form: p. 32, short form: p. 42 year C, Luke, long form: p. 45, short form: p. 55
Here are links to the Passion narratives in the New American Bible web pages, not in lectionary format, at the site of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Passion Sunday, year A Matthew 26:14-27:66
Passion Sunday, year B Mark 14:1-15:47
Passion Sunday, year C Luke 22:14-23:56
Father Roger Karban's commentaries, year A:
Karban, year B:
Karban, year C:Read all of Father Karban's recent columns here, at the site of FOSIL, the Faithful of Southern Illinois.
Detail from Christ before Pilate and Caiaphas, Donatello, bronze, 1460's, in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy. Donatello executed two pulpits for the church, one with bronze reliefs depicting scenes from Jesus' passion (the "passion pulpit"), the other with scenes of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. Click here for a very large image of the whole work. The detail above shows Pilate and Jesus. Note that the servant offering Pilate a water bowl has two faces, perhaps a commentary on Pilate's spinelessness and dishonesty.
This page updated January 31, 2019