Father Richard Kunst:
Holy Week is just as the name sounds, the holiest time of the year for the Christian faith. What we commemorate this week is the center of our universe and the whole reason why we are Christians.
More than anything else during Lent, I want to encourage you to make this week holy for yourselves by taking advantage of the beautiful liturgies the Church has to offer.
Actually the Holy Triduum of Holy Week, which is Holy Thursday through the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, is considered to be one continuous liturgy.
I am wishing you all a Happy Holy Week!
Meditating on the Details of the Passion during Holy Week
In April, we tend to think of Easter, but before we get there we of course have to go through Holy Week and the Passion of Christ. For this column I want to explore some of the lesser known facts of Christ’s passion, as portrayed in the four Gospels. The portrayal of Christ’s suffering in the Gospels is so rich in detail that it would be easy to write several years’ worth of columns, so I will be very selective.
The number three is predominant in the Passion: Three apostles are set apart in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus returns to them three times. Peter denies Jesus three times. In the Gospels of Luke and John, Pilate declares Jesus innocent three times. In Luke and John, Jesus speaks three times from the cross. In Mark, the crucifixion scene involves the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day. Jesus is mocked three times as he was on the cross. All of this is to prepare the reader for the three days in the tomb.
Another interesting number has to do with Judas. In the ancient Hebrew language, letters had numeric value. The name “Judas” has the value of 30, the same as the number of pieces of silver he got for betraying Jesus.
The Gospel of John in the Gethsemane scene focuses a lot of attention on the torches used by those arresting Jesus. The irony is that they need illumination, because they cannot see the light of the world!
Interestingly, the part of the Passion narrative that the four Gospels most agree on is the denial of Peter.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is condemned at noon on the Day of Preparation. The Day of Preparation is on a Friday, so called because the Jewish people had to prepare everything to be ready on the Sabbath so that they did not have to work and violate the Sabbath rest. This Day of Preparation was the day before the Passover, meaning he was condemned at the exact time Paschal lambs started to be sacrificed in the Temple.
In all four Gospels there is a question put to the crowds concerning which prisoner should be released, Jesus or Barabbas, but in the Gospel of Matthew the choice of prisoners gets a bit more dramatic, because in some of the most ancient manuscripts, Matthew names the other prisoner not just Barabbas, but Jesus Barabbas. The reason that is important is because of what the name “Barabbas” means. In Hebrew, “Barabbas” literally means “son of the father.” So the choice in Matthew is between Jesus Barabbas, the son of the father, or Jesus Christ, the true Son of the Father.
One would think that when it comes time to actually describing the crucifixion itself the Gospels would be pretty specific, since it is the heart of the whole Passion narrative, yet the opposite is true. All four Gospels give scant detail when it comes to this most important part of Christ’s suffering. In Mark, it simply says, “And they crucified him.” Matthew says: “But having crucified him ….” Luke reads: “There they crucified him.” And John simply says, “… where they crucified him.” That is how each of the four Gospels describes the crucifixion.
Some scholars say that there was no need to describe crucifixion, because it was so well known and common to the original audiences. Cicero, a near contemporary of Jesus, said crucifixions were the “most cruel and disgusting penalty … extreme and ultimate penalty of a slave.”
You may have noticed that on older crucifixes there is often a skull at the base of the feet of Jesus. This is because of an ancient tradition that says Jesus (the new man) was crucified over the tomb of Adam (the first man), and that according to the tradition, some of Jesus’ blood seeped into the ground and touched the skull of Adam, momentarily bringing him back to life. If you were to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem today, you would see the traditional tomb of Adam right under Calvary. In fact, the name Calvary itself might be due to this tradition, since the word means skull.
In John 19:29, it is told that a sponge was dipped into some common wine and put on a hyssop branch to be raised to Jesus’ mouth. The hyssop branch is not a meaningless detail, since that is the same type of branch used to smear the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the Hebrews in the book of Exodus to spare them from death.
In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus is quoted to have said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” At first glance this might seem to be a confusing thing for Jesus to have said, but the fact is that those are the opening words of Psalm 22, which is titled “Passion and Triumph of the Messiah.” This is a Psalm that speaks of the Messiah having to suffer before his triumph. I encourage you to sit down and read Psalm 22 sometime before Holy Week. It is amazing, as it seems as though the author wrote it at the foot of the cross, though very likely it was written 1,000 years before Christ. So the words are certainly not words of despair. Rather, they are words of prayer, reciting the Psalm.
Finally, one interesting detail comes from the “good thief” in Luke’s version of the Passion. In stunning intimacy, the good thief addresses Jesus simply by name. The only person in all four gospels to do so, he also becomes the last person to speak to Jesus before he dies.
These are simply a few highlighted details of the Passion of Jesus as portrayed by the Gospel writers. I would suggest as we enter into Holy Week that we all take time to read the Passion narrative of at least one of the Gospels, not to learn but to meditate on what Christ endured for love of us. It might enrich our Triduum experience.
—Father Richard Kunst, Curator
A psalm of David.
2 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?a
3 My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.b
4 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the glory of Israel.c
5 In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted and you rescued them.
6 To you they cried out and they escaped;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.d
7*But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.e
8 All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:f
9 “He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him.”g
10For you drew me forth from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
11 Upon you I was thrust from the womb;
since my mother bore me you are my God.h
12 Do not stay far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is no one to help.i
13 Many bulls* surround me;
fierce bulls of Bashan* encircle me.
14 They open their mouths against me,
lions that rend and roar.j
15 Like water my life drains away;
all my bones are disjointed.
My heart has become like wax,
it melts away within me.
16 As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.*
17 Dogs surround me;
a pack of evildoers closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet
18 I can count all my bones.k
They stare at me and gloat;
19 they divide my garments among them;
for my clothing they cast lots.l
20 But you, LORD, do not stay far off;
my strength, come quickly to help me.
21 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the grip of the dog.
22 Save me from the lion’s mouth,
my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.m
23 Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
24 “You who fear the LORD, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
25 For he has not spurned or disdained
the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away* from me,
but heard me when I cried out.
26 I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.
27 The poor* will eat their fill;
those who seek the LORD will offer praise.
May your hearts enjoy life forever!”o
28 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD;
All the families of nations
will bow low before him.p
29 For kingship belongs to the LORD,
the ruler over the nations.q
30 *All who sleep in the earth
will bow low before God;
All who have gone down into the dust
will kneel in homage.
31 And I will live for the LORD;
my descendants will serve you.
32 The generation to come will be told of the Lord,
that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn
the deliverance you have brought.r
About Psalm 22
[Psalm 22] A lament unusual in structure and in intensity of feeling. The psalmist’s present distress is contrasted with God’s past mercy in Ps 22:2–12. In Ps 22:13–22 enemies surround the psalmist. The last third is an invitation to praise God (Ps 22:23–27), becoming a universal chorus of praise (Ps 22:28–31). The Psalm is important in the New Testament. Its opening words occur on the lips of the crucified Jesus (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46), and several other verses are quoted, or at least alluded to, in the accounts of Jesus’ passion (Mt 27:35, 43; Jn 19:24).