The Passion begins. If you’re like me and wonder why these final days are called the Passion, then you’ll be glad to know that Google offers a good explanation: The word “passion” comes from a Latin word for suffering. And there’s a lot of it in these two chapters.
We begin with chapter 26, the longest in Matthew, and hold on, because it’s nothing but a bumpy ride, from Judas’s betrayal to Peter’s three-time denial of knowing Jesus. This chapter and the next are bleak, and if they were the end of the story, then our churches and indeed, our very lives of faith, would be much different. Thankfully, on Pentecost, we’ll read of the triumph after the torture.
We open with the religious leaders plotting against Jesus, and the narrative continues to set the stage for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. We encounter an interesting story with the woman who pours costly ointment on the head of Jesus. This anointing serves as a grim harbinger of Jesus’ death. Judas’s words here, claiming to be aghast at the waste of such fragrant oil, seem particularly hollow when we read just a few verses later his intention to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Interestingly, the value of the silver is significantly less than that of the oil, so Judas was willing to betray his teacher for a few meager coins while the woman gave the equivalent of a year’s salary or more to honor Jesus.
Matthew’s account of the Last Supper is familiar. We hear these words during the celebration of Holy Eucharist: “Take, eat; this is my body,” and then after raising the chalice, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus moves from the final meal with his friends to the Garden of Gethsemane, where we begin to experience his agony. Jesus knows the suffering the coming days will bring and yet prays to his Father, “not what I want but what you want.”
Judas seals his betrayal with a kiss, and guards seize Jesus. While Jesus faces trial and tribulation with the chief priests and council, Peter undergoes his own test: Just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies knowing him three times. When the cock crows, Peter recalls Jesus’ words and weeps.
We move into chapter 27 and the day of Jesus’ death. This chapter features several details of the narrative that are only found in the Gospel of Matthew. Only here do we read of Judas’s suicide and how the silver he so selfishly sought purchased the so-called Field of Blood. Matthew is the only gospel in which we hear about Pilate’s wife and her foreboding dream and how Pilate literally and figuratively washes his hands of complicity in Jesus’ death. This account alone talks about how bodies of the saints “who had fallen asleep were raised” and that religious leaders asked for (and received) guards for the tomb so that no one could steal Jesus’ body and then claim he had risen from the dead. (That part didn’t work out so well for the guards).
Jesus is brought before Pilate, and the governor asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” In an answer that must surely have maddened Pilate, Jesus says, “You say so.” Despite Pilate’s pressing, Jesus does not answer the accusations. Then Pilate turns to the crowd, which clamors for the release of another prisoner, Barabbas. The suffering continues for Jesus as they twist a crown of thorns onto his head, spit on, and strike him. Then they led him to Golgotha—known as Place of a Skull—for crucifixion.
The torture continues: they offer wine mixed with gall and cast lots for his clothes. With a sign overhead, they mock, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” At three in the afternoon, as darkness comes over the land, Jesus cries with a loud voice and breathes his last. The earth shakes. Rocks split. Tombs open. The curtain of the temple is torn in two. Jesus is dead.
But he is not alone. “Many women were also there,” including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. That evening, Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and (perhaps secret) follower of Jesus, asks Pilate for the body of Jesus, binds him in linen clothes and spices, and buries him in Joseph’s own tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sit by the tomb, ever faithful, even unto death, to their teacher and friend.
Our readings end this week with Jesus dead and buried. But we know this is a life and death and life story, and we will return on Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, to celebrate the Good News of the risen Christ.