Save Us, O Lord (Matthew 21:1-11; 26:14 – 27:66)
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year A)
Ushering the holiest of weeks in Christendom, the celebration of the Passion Sunday is expectedly full of colour and movement. The people process with branches accompanied by the glorious singing of the Hosanna. These two visual elements graphically represent the celebration. Are they mere fortuitous embellishments? Or do they theologically inform this event?
Hosanna was the cry that reverberated in Jerusalem on that day of Jesus’ entry to the city (Mt. 21:9). The word is a transliteration of the Aramaic rendition of the Hebrew cry and prayer found in Ps. 118:25. It is part of a processional psalm, which in its liturgical usage bespeaks of worship and praise. Originally it is an invocation of mercy addressed to God, which may be translated as LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success!
The reason for calling on God is already intimated in the earlier part of the song: the Lord’s mercy endures forever (Ps. 118:1-4). That is why the psalmist prays with certainty: In danger, I called on the Lord, the Lord answered me and set me free (Ps. 118:5). Those who invoke the name of the Lord are considered blessed because they carry the Lord’s name on their lips. Joy ensues because of the assurance that God hears the prayers of those who call on him. The certainty of divine salvation is the root of gladness. Ultimately, this prayer concludes with an invitation to move in procession with leafy branches to the altar (Ps. 118:27).
In post-exilic Judaism (more or less after the time of Ezra, ca. 4th century B.C.), the Hallel psalms (113-118) were sung during the high moments of the great feasts of Passover and Tabernacles. Talmudic sources describe this rite thus: “On the seven days of Tabernacles, after the Musaph (evening prayer of the Jewish liturgy), the priests taking the willow branches in their hands went in solemn procession around the altar of the burnt offering, and cried out ‘Oh Lord help us; oh, help us’” (cf. bSukka 43b). It was originally an urgent request for rain – an act seen as a divine saving intervention. What was an agricultural pleading became a cry for deliverance, individually and collectively.
Knowing this practice, the author of Matthew’s gospel effectively connects this song to God’s saving action and the altar of sacrifice. Employing these Jewish liturgical elements, the writer, in effect, portrays the people rustling the leaves of jubilation as encircling the Lamb of God to be offered. For many early Christian communities, this did not come as a surprise. It was the completion of the long-awaited promise. Seen as the fulfilment of the ancient covenants, Jesus is the definitive divine saving act and, simultaneously, the victim and sacrifice to be offered.
Yet, the altar was no longer in the temple. It was found on a lowly hill outside the city called Golgotha (Place of the Skull). As the letter to the Hebrews affirms, “Jesus dies outside the gate to sanctify the people by his own blood” (Heb. 13:12). Hence, the succeeding passion narrative in Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 dramatically details the preparation and the eventual accomplishment of this specific sacrifice. In such an act of offering, priests were involved. As it were, the priests themselves were preparing for this rather extraordinary victim (Mt. 26:14-16). Still, most especially the high priest, in this case, Caiaphas (Mt. 26:57). Ordinarily, when a victim is to be offered, the priests preside over the slaughter and the burning of the same. Unknowingly perhaps, these ministers of the temple “fulfilled” their duty to the fullest!
One must note that Jesus was not an accidental sufferer here. He initiated the scene: “As you know, Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Mt. 26:2). Only then did the council of priests gather to decide about Jesus’ death. However, these people were not innocent performers. Matthew characterized these people of authority as taking counsel against Jesus (Mt. 27:1). The Greek word, sumboúlion (to take counsel, to plan), is always connected to their plan of destroying Jesus (Mt. 12:14), entrapping him (22:15), putting him to death (27:1), exculpating themselves given Judas’ contrition (27:7) and bribing the soldiers so that the resurrection story may not be told to others (28:12). Moreover the gospel took notice of their treachery (Greek, dolos) in arresting Jesus. Given all these negative depictions, a need for a better priest emerges. Could it be that the anointing done by the anonymous woman (Mt. 26:6-13) alludes to a priestly consecration?
Although Jesus speaks of the woman preparing him for burial (Mt. 26:12), the action is replete with liturgical and priestly meanings. If this reading is correct, the gospel presents Jesus as a priest and victim. The author succinctly captures the allusion to a lamb led to slaughter (Mt. 27:2) as portrayed by Isaiah’s suffering servant (Is. 53:7). Jesus was bound, led away, and handed over. Nothing could be more fitting as a description of this atoning self-sacrifice.
The people’s avowed statement further reinforces this liturgical reading of Matthew’s passion narrative: “His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Mt. 27:25). In proposing a means to release Jesus (Mt. 27:17-18), the narrative highlights the decision arrived at by the crowd through the prodding of the leaders. Unwittingly, they employed a solemn language found in the Old Testament. The theme generally used in the profession of faith and renewal of the covenant (sprinkling of the blood upon the people) is undoubtedly present here (cf. Ex. 24:6). But there is a stark difference. In the book of Exodus, it was an act of acceptance. In Matthew, it is a tragic repudiation.
This rejection did not stop Jesus from fulfilling his mission. At the beginning of his ministry, the devil tempted him to use his dignity as the Son of God to feed and save himself (Mt. 4:1-11). The final test unfolded while he hung on the cross: “Save yourself, if you are the Son of God, and come down from the cross (Mt. 27:40-44). He proved himself faithful to his mission and to his name. “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).