The long and rich readings for Passion/Palm Sunday usher us into Holy Week and prepare us for the Sacred Triduum and the celebration of Easter Sunday. Each reading can contribute to our appreciation of Jesus’ sufferings and their significance for us.
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah 50 provides some background for the early Christian identification of Jesus as the Suffering Servant of God. With its graphic description of the Servant’s physical sufferings, it reminds us of what Jesus underwent for us. The Servant Song from Isaiah 53, to be read on Good Friday, will go even further in underlining how and why Jesus suffered on our behalf.
Psalm 22, today’s responsorial psalm, is the most famous of the biblical laments. It combines vivid descriptions of personal sufferings and reflections on God as the source of hope in the midst of suffering. According to Mark and Matthew, Jesus made the psalm’s first words his own as he hung on the cross. When one reads the whole psalm (as one should), it becomes clear that it is full of hope for vindication by God. Early Christians interpreted Psalm 22 as prophesying not only the sufferings of Jesus but also his vindication in the resurrection.
Today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is the text of an early Christian hymn about Christ as the Servant of God. It first describes his incarnation and suffering as a kind of self-emptying (kenosis) of his divinity. Then it describes his resurrection as an exaltation to the point that all creation pays homage to the risen Jesus and acclaims him as “Lord.”
Servant, Sufferer and Lord are important images of Jesus in Holy Week. They help us to grasp what is really going on and why Holy Week is so important. Luke’s passion narrative adds to this picture by presenting Jesus as the best example of fidelity, because even in death he remains faithful to his own teachings about love of enemies, concern for marginal persons and trust in God as his heavenly Father.
Luke’s passion narrative adds three sayings to the corpus of the last words of Jesus. In each instance Jesus shows himself faithful to the principles that he taught during his own public ministry. With his prayer “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), Jesus practices love of enemies and shows himself faithful to his own principle of love of enemies. In his promise to the “good thief” (“today you will be with me in paradise,” 23:43), Jesus continues his ministry to marginal persons even while he is on the cross. And in expressing his trust in God to the end (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” 23:46), Jesus exemplifies his own insistence on trusting in God’s compassionate care.
In the third of these sayings Jesus makes his own the words of Psalm 31:6. That psalm is another lament in which the speaker addresses God directly (“O Lord”), describes the present suffering with great emotion, professes trust in God’s care and asks God to do something to relieve the suffering. It ends (as do many biblical laments) with words of thanksgiving, either anticipating God’s action in the future or bearing witness to it as having already taken place. What is especially striking about this psalm are its several expressions of trust in God in 31:6 (“Into your hands I commend my spirit”) and 31:15-16 (“But I trust in you, Lord…my times are in your hands”).
Psalm 31 is the prayer of an innocent sufferer, the victim of plotting by his enemies. Likewise, Jesus is an innocent sufferer, the victim of trumped up charges, lying witnesses and corrupt officials. Thus the psalmist and Jesus stand in solidarity with other innocent sufferers in the past and present. Like the psalmist, Jesus is left alone to face his suffering and so he prays to God. Throughout his public ministry according to Luke, Jesus prayed at the most important moments in his career: his baptism, his choice of the Twelve Apostles, Peter’s confession of him as the Messiah and so on.
During his public ministry Jesus taught people to trust in God. He declared “happy” or “blessed” the poor, the hungry and the weeping. He taught them not to be anxious about what they would eat or wear because the Father wants to give them his kingdom. Now at the moment of death Jesus hands himself over to his Father’s care. But in accord with Psalm 31 Jesus also hopes for vindication from God. The psalmist proclaims God to be his rock and fortress, prays for rescue from his enemies and affirms that the Lord “protects the loyal.” In Jesus’ case these last words are those of a trusting and hopeful person, awaiting vindication at Easter.