Friday, March 18

Matthew 20:29-34: Matthew’s version of this story effectively juxtaposes these two blind men with the two sons of Zebedee, who are symbolically healed of their spiritual blindness with respect to the mystery of the Cross. Thus healed, says the text, “they followed “him” (20:34). They become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption.

To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection, the other a proclaiming of His death “until He comes.” These two men have accepted the challenge just made to James and John.

These blind men, calling on Jesus with the Messianic title, “Son of David,” ask for the opening of their eyes, an expression which in prophetic literature is associated with the Messianic times (cf. Isaiah 29:18; 35:5).

In fact, one notes in Matthew a disposition to call Jesus the “Son of David” (a title introduced in the very first verse of this Gospel), when He miraculously heals. We observe this in both healings of the blind men (here and in 9:30), the blind and mute demoniac (12:22-24), and the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28). These healings are signs of the coming of the Messiah, foretold by the prophets (cf. 4:23; 9:35; 10:1).

Romans 16:1-27: As the rising sun moves up toward the eastern horizon each morning, one by one the myriad stars of heaven start to disappear. They do not depart the sky, of course, but the stars do become invisible by reason of the sun’s larger and more garish light, and we upon the earth may no longer gain our bearings by observing them.

Not so the saints who shine on high. The true Sun or Righteousness does not, at His rising, eclipse those lesser lights by which the Church on earth is guided. On the contrary, He Himself illumines the saints, who have no light apart from Him. The reign of Christ does not dethrone the saints, who have no reign apart from His.

The saints, because they are so many and their serried ranks so closely stand together, are described as a “cloud” (Hebrews 12:1). Yet, on closer inspection, we perceive that not one of the saints loses those personal and particular traits by which each friend of Christ may be distinguished from the others. The Good Shepherd calls them each by name.

The individual and particular names of the saints are inscribed in the Book of Life, and the names of many of them are written likewise in the Bible. It is the singular merit of Romans 16 that it contains the New Testament’s largest collection of names of individual Christians. They belong to the “church,” a word that now appears in Romans for the first time (verses 1,4,5,16,23).

Lazarus Saturday, March 19

John 11: We come now to Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the place of the culminating events effective of our redemption. This chapter, the last in the “book of signs,” narrates the greatest of these signs: the raising of Lazarus. This event, foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus, was a literal fulfillment of His prophecy in 5:28-29: “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth.”

This sickness of Lazarus, Jesus declares, will not finish in death—death will not have the final word—-but in “the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (verse 4). The theme of the divine glory in this chapter (verse 40) ties the raising of Lazarus to the first of Jesus’ Signs, the miracle at Cana (2:11).

Crucial to the understanding of this event is the dialogue that explains it, the discussion in which Jesus tells Martha (verses 21-27) that He is the Resurrection and the life of those who believe in Him. The raising of Lazarus is the demonstration—the revelation event—of that truth.

Does Martha’s expression “even now” (kai nun) convey a request for the Lord to raise her brother right away? I believe it does, but the meaning is subtle and implicit. She does not press Jesus overtly, but her hint opens the dialogue to the experience of immediacy. Jesus fills this immediacy by His claim to be, “even now,” the Resurrection and the life. That is to say, the root of the final resurrection is planted in the here and now of faith (verses 25-26; cf. 6:40).

Martha, invited to confess that faith, gives voice to the answer of the Church with respect to the identity of Jesus: “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (verse 27; cf. 6:69). The dialogue ends with this declaration, and Martha must get busy on the basis of it.

Martha’s summons to her sister (verse 28) is described with a delicacy of detail suggesting an immediate eyewitness. Jesus is identified simply as the didaskalos, “teacher,” doubtless a translation of rabbi.

Evidently to avoid the crowd at the family’s home, Jesus remains on the outskirts of the village, nearer the tomb (verses 29-30). The crowds, nonetheless, follow Mary out, observing that her departure is abrupt (verse 31).

Prostrating herself before the Lord, Mary repeats the view just expressed by her sister, with obvious disappointment and perhaps with a sense of bewilderment that that Jesus had tarried his journey to Bethany. We may wonder if this statement of the sisters—dismayed at Jesus’ delay in coming—may reflect a sentiment of the early Christians, many of whom believed that the Lord would come back quickly: ““How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10; cf. Matthew 24:45—25:28).

In Holy Scripture, death is no friend of man. Death is the enemy! It is death that has stolen this brother away for the sisters who loved him. It is death that fills Mary’s heart with sorrow. Death is the enemy that Jesus prepares Himself to confront. He will not deal gently with death. According to the faith of the Church, Jesus “tramples down death by death.”

Palm Sunday, March 20

Matthew 21:1-11: The enthusiasm shown at our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem is partly to be explained, as a matter of history, as the people’s response to the raising of Lazarus, an event not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.

Comparing the three Synoptics, we observe that Matthew explicitly interprets the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem through the eyes of the prophet Zechariah, whom he quotes in verse 5: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and seated on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Zechariah 9:9).

This recourse to prophecy, which must have been obvious to others besides Matthew, guarantees that the event is not regarded as an isolated occurrence, because vision of prophecy places it into a larger, more panoramic historical perspective. Prophecy permits the event to be regarded as manifesting God’s purpose.

Prophecy reveals at once two things about what happened on the first Palm Sunday: first, the inner meaning of the event as God sees it, and second, the connection of the event with earlier biblical history.

The second of these points requires further elaboration. In the mind of Matthew, the biblical background or foreshadowing of this event was the story in 2 Samuel 15—17, where King David is portrayed fleeing from the rebellion of Absalom. Crossing the Kidron valley eastwards and ascending the Mount of Olives, David is the king rejected of his people, while a usurper is in full revolt. The King leaves the city in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge.

As he goes, David suffers further humiliation and deception from those who take advantage of his plight. One of his most trusted counselors, Ahitophel, betrays him to his enemies; another citizen curses and scorns him in his flight.

Moreover, in the description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving “a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him” (2 Samuel 15:1). Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.

Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet-to-come, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah foretold the triumphal entry of the Messiah into Zion, the story narrated by the Evangelists. The Savior arrives in Jerusalem by the very path that David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, our Lord comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly-borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.

Monday, March 21

Matthew 21:12-27: Perhaps we should begin our reflections today by recalling that the coming Messiah was expected to purge the Temple. Earlier suggestions of this idea include Isaiah 56:7, which is quoted by the Gospels as a prophecy fulfilled on this occasion: “Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, /And make them joyful in My house of prayer. /Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices /Will be accepted on My altar; /For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” In this text the Temple is “purged” in the sense of being rebuilt after its destruction by the defiling Babylonians. Our Lord also indicates His fulfillment of prophecy on this occasion by justifying His action with a reference to Jeremiah 7:11: “‘Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,’ says the Lord.”

Perhaps even more to the purpose, however, were the words of Malachi, referring to the Messiah’s coming to the Temple in order to purge it: “‘Behold, I send My messenger, / And he will prepare the way before Me. / And the Lord, whom you seek, / Will suddenly come to His temple, / Even the Messenger of the covenant, /In whom you delight. / Behold, He is coming,’ / Says the Lord of hosts. / ‘But who can endure the day of His coming? / And who can stand when He appears? / For He is like a refiner’s fire / And like launderers’ soap. / He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; / He will purify the sons of Levi, / And purge them as gold and silver, / That they may offer to the Lord / An offering in righteousness. / Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem / Will be pleasant to the Lord, /As in the days of old, /As in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4). The context of this purging foreseen by Malachi was the sad state of Israel’s worship, to which he was witness (1:6-10,12-14).

The Temple’s expected “purging” by the Messiah had mainly to do with ritual and moral defilements, much as those Judas Maccabaeus had cleansed from the Lord’s house after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This purging was completed with the Temple’s rededication on December 14, 164 B. C. (1 Maccabees 4:52).

As described in the New Testament, however, the “defilement” does not appear to have been so severe. It apparently consisted of the noise and distractions occasioned by the buying and selling of sacrificial animals necessary for the Temple’s ritual sacrifice. John describes the scene in greater detail: “And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables” (John 2:14-15).

What the Lord did in this respect was more symbolic than practical. There is no evidence that this action of Jesus amounted to more than a slight disturbance in the daily activity of the Temple, nor does Jesus seem to have persisted in it. He intended, rather, to enact a prophecy, much in line with sundry similar actions by the Old Testament prophets. Those who were witnesses to the event discerned this significance, recognizing it as a “Messianic sign.” This recognition explains the menacing reaction of the Lord’s enemies (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47).

Tuesday, March 22

Matthew 23:1-13: In this story of the ten maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom, everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: “But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).

The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times—the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.

In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).

The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.

In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.

Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”–chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”–chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).

We also observe that the prudent maidens are unable to help the foolish (verse 9). They are not being cruel or insensitive in this refusal. They are simply recognizing the limitations that come with responsibility. It is a plain fact that there are some things that one Christian cannot do for another. This limitation pertains to the structure of reality, and the foolish maidens have brought their problem upon themselves.

The prudent, thoughtful maidens enter into the wedding festivities, and the door is closed (verse 10). This closing of the door represents the end of history; the deed represents finality. In an earlier parable Matthew had narrated the exclusion of a man from a wedding festival because of his failure to take it seriously (22:11-14).

This parable ends with an exhortation to vigilance (verse 13). John Calvin captured the spirit of this parable when he wrote, “the Lord would have us keep in constant watch for Him in such a way as not to limit Him in any way to a particular time” (On Second Thessalonians 2.2).

Spy Wednesday, March 23

Matthew 26:1-16: We now come to Wednesday of Holy Week. There are four brief scenes in these sixteen verses. These scenes alternate back and forth between Jesus’ friends and Jesus’ enemies.

The first verse of this chapter indicates that Jesus has now finished “all” five of the great discourses in Matthew (Compare 7:28; 11;1; 13:53; 19:1). Matthew’s wording here (“when Jesus had finished all these sayings”) puts the reader in mind of the end of the five books (Chumash) of Moses: “When Moses finished speaking all these words” (Deuteronomy 32:45).

This first section (verses 1-2), unlike the other gospels, includes a fourth prophecy of the Passion, specifying that it will happen “after two days” (verse 2). Since our Lord has already prophesied the Passion on three earlier occasions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19), He can preface this fourth prophecy with, “You know.” This is the only prophecy of our Lord that links His Passion with the Passover.

In the second scene (verses 3-5) the action shifts to a conspiracy of Jesus’ enemies assembled in the courtyard of the high priest (verse 3)–the very place where Peter will soon deny knowing Jesus (verse 69). Caiaphas was the high priest from A.D. 18 to 36. His whole family was involved in opposition to Jesus and the Church (Acts 4:6).

In spite of their decision to wait until after the Passover before arresting Jesus (verse 5), the Lord’s enemies will take advantage of an opportunity provided for them by Judas Iscariot (verses 14-16). Matthew and Mark demonstrate how the betrayal of Judas was associated with an event, which both evangelists next proceed to describe; this is the third scene, Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (verses 6-13; Mark 14:3-9; cf. John 12:1-8).

In the story of the anointing in Bethany, it is clear that our Lord’s disciples were not completely “with” Him. Failing to grasp the implications of this most recent prophecy of the coming Passion, they are unable to grasp the dramatic significance of what transpires at Bethany (verses 8-12).

The deed of this un-named woman pertains to the “Gospel,” says Jesus (verse 13). The Gospel, after all, is about Jesus; it is not about social concerns separable from His own person. The woman in this story is concentrated on Jesus, and such concentration pertains to the essence of the Gospel.

In the last scene, Judas is contrasted with this woman. His surname, “Iscariot,” means “man (’ish of Kerioth–cf. Joshua 15:25). Those early Gospel readers familiar with Latin may have noticed the name’s similarity to the noun sicarius–literally “knifeman,” or assassin. Perhaps having heard of the plot of Jesus’ enemies, Judas goes and makes them an offer (verse 15).

Alone among the New Testament writers, Matthew names the actual price of the transaction: thirty silver pieces, the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32), the low wages of the shepherd in Zechariah 11:12 (cf. Matthew 27:3-10).

This deal, says Matthew, was a turning point (verse 16). There was now a traitor among the disciples, waiting for his opportunity. It would come on the following night.

This section of Matthew is a story of irony and contrasts. The irony, worked out in four short scenes, consists in the antithesis between the intention of Jesus’ enemies and what they actually accomplished. Not wanting to provoke a riot by arresting Jesus during the Passover, they set in motion a train of events that would in due course lead to the destruction of their Holy City. Hoping to dispose of a troublesome religious teacher, they unwittingly implemented a divine determination to supplant their own religious authority. Judas, complaining of the loss of 300 coins from his purse, sells Jesus for one-tenth of that number.

Maundy Thursday, March 24

Matthew 26:14-56: To the three Synoptic accounts of the Holy Eucharist we must add that in 1 Corinthians 11, which is at least a decade older than the earliest of the four gospels. Indeed, this narrative recorded by St. Paul links the institution of the Eucharist explicitly to the betrayal by Judas: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread . . .” This text provides clear evidence that the traditional narrative contained in the Eucharistic prayer, as it was already known to Paul when he founded the Corinthian church about A.D. 50, made mention of Judas’s betrayal. That same formula or its equivalent—“on the night He was betrayed”—is found in both the liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.

The Church’s testimony on this point is remarkable. It is as though some deep impulse discourages Christians from celebrating the Holy Communion without some reference to the betrayal by Judas. This reference serves to remind Christians of the terrible judgment that surrounds the Mystery of the Altar: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
In spite of their manifest shortcomings in discipleship, the Twelve obey Jesus, making the necessary preparations for the Seder (verses 17-19), as they had earlier prepared for His triumphal entry in Jerusalem (21:2-7). In this brief dialogue we observe that the Passover and the Unleavened Bread are fused together, as they were in practice. On the day of the Seder (Thursday of Holy Week), all leavened bread was thrown out, so that only unleavened bread would be in the house that evening. Like Mark (14:12), Matthew refers to that Thursday as “the first day of unleavened bread” (verses 17; Mark 14:1).

In this same dialogue Matthew introduces another view of the “timing” of this event. Jesus has His own “time”–kairos (verse 18). This kairos of Jesus has to do with God’s plan, though its implementation subsumes the “opportunity” (eukaria) of the Lord’s enemies (verse 16). This kairos of Matthew (missing in Mark 14:14) is identical with the “hour” in John (2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,27; 13:1; 16:21,32; 17:1). Both terms are references to God’s control of history—Divine Providence as it pertained to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is obviously quite conscious of this.

The reader knows that, while Jesus shares the Seder with His disciples, final preparations for his impending arrest are being conducted at the house of Caiaphas. The arresting party arms itself and waits the return of Judas Iscariot, who will lead them to where Jesus will be. Judas leaves the Seder early: “Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30).

While the plot is in progress, Jesus comes to that part of the Seder where the Berakah, the blessing of God, is prayed at the breaking of the unleavened loaf. Jesus, after praying the traditional Berakah, breaks the loaf and mysteriously identifies it as His body: “Take, eat; this is My body” (verse 26).

Because the Greek noun for “body,” soma, has no adequate equivalent in Aramaic or Hebrew, we presume that Jesus used the noun basar (sarxs in Greek), which means “flesh.” Indeed, this is the noun we find all through John’s Bread of Life discourse (6:51-56). In the traditions inherited by St. Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, the noun had been changed to “body.”

Good Friday, March 25

Matthew 26:57—27:61: Evidently there were several “final words” of Jesus on the cross, some recorded in Matthew and Mark, others in Luke and John. As we have just observed, only Luke narrates the conversation with the thief. Luke alone, likewise, records the two times Jesus cries out to God as “Father”: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:34, 46).

John, an eyewitness to the Savior’s death, tells how the dying Jesus committed to him the future care of his mother (John 19:26-27).

As for Matthew and Mark, they both testify that “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:50; cf. Mark 15:37), but neither author relates what the “loud voice” said. One conjectures that Matthew and Mark are alluding to Jesus’ final words as they are recorded in Luke and/or John.

Let us begin, then, with the “second to last” sentence of Jesus, as transmitted by Matthew and Mark, who cite it in an Aramaic/Hebrew mixture: “’Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’” (Matthew 17:46; cf. Mark 15:34).

Jesus’ cry conveyed, not an objective, reified condition of his, but, rather, his human experience of distance from God. The abandonment was psychological, not ontological.

God does not abandon His friends and loyal servants—much less His Son. Nonetheless, it often happens that God’s friends and servants feel abandoned, and they feel it very keenly. And when they do, they often enough have recourse to the Book of Psalms . . . . as Jesus does in the present case.

When the Savior expressed this painful experience in prayer, the opening line of Psalm 22 arose to his lips—in Hebrew, ’Eli, ’Eli, lamah ‘azavtani—“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He could hardly have prayed this line of the Psalter unless he knew the Father was still “my God.”

In making this prayer his own, Jesus was hardly expressing a sentiment unique to himself. He was, rather, identifying himself with every human being who has ever felt alienated from God, abandoned by God, estranged from God. Perhaps this prayer best expresses what we mean when we speak of “the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). It was in this deep sense of dereliction that we perceive, most truly, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).