By Father James Lentini
A look at this spiritual, reflective time through Matthew’s, Mark’s, Luke’s and John’s Gospels
As Lent progresses, it casts our eyes toward Holy Week, which starts on Palm Sunday (a.k.a. Passion Sunday); carries us through to the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday); and culminates with Easter.
Holy Week is perhaps the most deeply spiritual and reflective period of time for Catholics during the entire year. It’s a time where minds and hearts are called to reflect upon Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a Sunday and his death in that same city on the following Friday. The events that fill up the time in between those days are the stuff that speaks to the heart of our faith.
Scripture scholars will not like what I am about to do, but from a faith perspective what I am about to do is a long-standing and understood practice. In the paragraphs to follow I am going to harmonize the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Harmonization of the Gospels is when one takes the four Gospels and attempts to integrate them together to give fuller telling of the life of Christ; it provides a rich spiritual referent for the faithful to understand the events of Holy Week in a more comprehensible and linear form. It is what the church does liturgically during the period of Holy Week.
Let’s step into the Wayback Machine and go back to the day before Palm Sunday. It’s on that Saturday that Christ gave his faithful a taste of what was to come. It was on that day that Christ raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). Lazarus had been a friend of Jesus who passed away suddenly; Christ famously wept for him. Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary both said to Christ that if he had been there their brother would not have died.
At that point Christ does something profound. He cries out in a loud voice for Lazarus to rise from the grave. This is a fulfillment of John 5:28, when Christ tells the faithful, “the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice.” Indeed, Lazarus heard the voice of Christ, and he rose. But let’s be clear, Lazarus came back to life into this world as he was before. However, he now had a miraculous story to tell his grandkids. Within a week of this miraculous event, the meaning of resurrection would be changed forever, and for better.
A step too far
Christ’s miracles really ticked off the powers-that-be at the time (the leaders of the Pharisees and the chief priests). His miraculous works and preaching had challenged them at times. But now, this raising a man from the dead, this was simply a step too far in riling the faithful to turn from listening to their leaders to listening to this rabble-rousing Messiah. The chief priests and the Pharisees convoked the Sanhedrin (an assembly of leaders) asking the question: “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him” (John 11:47-48).
Another group called the Sadducees, which held that there was no such thing as resurrection (Mark 12:18), was also nonplussed by our Savior’s preaching and teaching. Scripture says, “they consulted together to arrest Jesus by treachery and put him to death” (Matthew 26:4). It is clear that from this day forward his detractors actively planned to kill him. Thus the stage is now set for Holy Week.
Palm Sunday finds Jesus not just in Judea (where he raised Lazarus) but rather in the heart of Judea; he was entering Jerusalem. In Delaware terms, he didn’t just go into Kent County, he went right into Dover, right into where the governing authorities exercised power. Coming off of the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead and his other miracles, deeds and preaching, Jesus received a hero’s welcome (Matthew 21:8-9, Luke 19:37-38). He entered the city and people laid palm branches and their cloaks at his feet.
This is much the way in a different era a monarch would be heralded by trumpet blares and have rose petals tossed on his path. If you think the high priests of Judea and authorities were upset with this Messiah figure yesterday, on Palm Sunday, they were fit to be tied. Since Christianity views Sunday as the beginning day of the week, we start our Holy Week on Palm Sunday. Also, since Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the time of Christ’s Passion, it is commonly called Passion Sunday. Passion Sunday was the centerpiece of a former church season known as Passiontide, which ran from the fifth Sunday of Lent through the start of the Triduum.
Following Palm Sunday, Jesus made his presence known in Jerusalem. His first stop was his Father’s house, the Great Temple of Jerusalem. When Christ arrived there, he became righteously indignant about the state of things; there charlatan money-changers to whom people gave coins and gold in exchange for animals to be sacrificed in the Temple. The money-changers were rooking the folks. Since “60 Minutes” didn’t exist at the time to expose this theft, Christ did what he needed to do to clean this rabble out of the Temple. He upended their tables, whipped them and kicked them out onto the street (Matthew 21:12-13).
You can imagine the money-changers were not happy, and frankly the people who needed to get sacrifices done in the Temple were probably equally perturbed (i.e., when you are about to buy tickets from a scalper for the Phillies game, even though you know you are being overcharged, you are ticked off when the cop arrests the guy before you can close the deal). Christ did the correct thing in trying to restore holiness to the Temple which contained the Holy of Holies; it is right and just that this is one of the opening moments of Holy Week.
Christ’s actions in the temple were foretold by the prophet Malachi who said: “Suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord … Yes, he is coming … and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal 3:1-3). As Jesus left the Temple, “The blind and the lame approached him in the temple area, and he cured them” (Matt 21:14).
The incident in the Temple didn’t sit well with everyone; the “authorities” certainly were upset. They were intent on bringing his activities to a halt. The next day, Tuesday of Holy Week, his detractors – realizing that he was bad for business at the Temple – asked him what seemed to be a question on taxes, but what it really was, was a question on authority.
To wit, Christ is asked: “Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not?” (Luke 20:22). Christ answers famously that one should render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God (Luke 20:25). Since we know everything we hold dear belongs to God, the meaning of his answer is obvious. Once again, the authorities are not happy. So, you have the Pharisees’ leaders, the Sadducees’ leaders, the Temple authorities and the Romans all looking askance and annoyed at this Jesus. They were taken aback by his answer and “and leaving him they went away” (Matthew 22:22). Jesus on this same day is challenged by the Sadducees on the issue of resurrection. His clear response silenced the Sadducees. At this point, “When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together” (Matthew 22:34).
On Wednesday, the plotting went into motion. The Chief Priests knew that Jesus had many who supported and followed him. They needed to arrest him at a time and place where there would be few of his supporters around. Thus, it couldn’t happen during the Passover festival celebrations (Matthew 26:4-5). Moreover, they knew they would have to infiltrate his inner circle to find where he would be at certain times as they made their case against him. They focused on Christ’s apostle Judas, who was the keeper of the money for the Apostles. John 13:2 tells us that the Devil “induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.” So, when the chief priests “paid him thirty pieces of silver” (Matthew 26:15), Judas took that as an offer he couldn’t refuse. He spilled everything on his friend, his Lord and his God. Since it was on this day when Judas met with the chief priests and conspired against Jesus, the day is commonly referred to as “Spy Wednesday.” Judas then waited for the right time to launch his betrayal (Matthew 26:16).
In our March 30 issue: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter.
Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.