At services during Holy Week, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” will be widely sung. Originally sung by African slaves, this hymn is beautifully somber, professing the deep faith of people who were denigrated and dehumanized like Christ. As we listen to Matthew’s Passion, we should consider who we might be in the narrative. Who was there in Jesus’ time of need?
Many women followed Jesus, ministering to him. (Mt 27:55)
Palm Sunday (A)
What can we learn from the women and men who served Jesus?
How can Jesus’ diverse supporters serve as model for leadership?
In the Gospel that opens Palm Sunday Mass, Jesus enters Jerusalem and is greeted by crowds who spread their cloaks on the ground, waving and throwing branches at his feet. They shout Hosanna (“save us” in Hebrew), praising Jesus and foreshadowing his salvific act on the cross.
In the verses immediately before those we read today, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head with oil. Like the crowds, her actions acknowledge the significance of Jesus’ impending sacrificial death (Mt 26:6-13). Although the disciples criticize her for being wasteful, Jesus praises her for ministering to him and anointing him as he nears death. One can see parallels to the sacrament of anointing of the sick.
On Palm Sunday, the reading of the Passion is often shared among multiple voices, offering an excellent opportunity for the congregation to reflect on who supported Jesus during his time of need. As the Passion unfolds, the apostles prepare the Passover meal and share the first Eucharist. Yet despite their closeness to Jesus, they do not stand by him in his suffering. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss to signal his arrest. Peter and the sons of Zebedee, the inner circle of the disciples, join Jesus at Gethsemane. But while Jesus is praying, expressing grief and anxiety, three times they fall asleep, frustrating Jesus and failing to offer him comfort. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter fulfills Jesus’ prophecy by denying him three times, saying, “I do not know the man” (Mt 26:72, 74). While presenting the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus, Mathew also shows Peter weeping after his denial, indicating the need for his repentance and reconciliation.
Jewish leaders and Roman officials orchestrate Jesus’ trial and sentencing, most notably Pontius Pilate, who questions Jesus, recognizes his innocence and symbolically washes his hands to absolve himself of responsibility. The crowds are unrelenting in their calls for Jesus’ death, and Jesus is mocked by soldiers, passersby and the bandits who are crucified alongside him.
Matthew mentions other people present during Jesus’ suffering. A passerby, Simon of Cyrene, helps Jesus carry his cross. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and other women witness the Passion. A Roman centurion proclaims Jesus was the Son of God. Joseph of Arimathea requests Jesus’ body in order to bury him properly. Mary Magdalene and Mary keep vigil at Jesus’ tomb.
The apostles are nowhere to be found at Jesus’ final moments. Despite the positive associations with them elsewhere in biblical and church tradition, today’s Gospel presents a troubling view of these men and demonstrates that at this critical moment, countless women and faithful witnesses sustained the community when the apostles fled. While the Passion invites us to be self-reflective, it also challenges us to examine our leadership structures and recognize important models of faith in our midst without being limited by clericalism. The Gospel provides a biblical foundation for integrating women and the laity into church leadership, creating an inclusive model that represents the body of the church.