“Jesus cried out in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit. And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
On Sunday we begin our annual observance of Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. Two Gospel passages are used for the liturgy. The first recalls Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Gospel is proclaimed at the beginning of Mass as part of the procession with palms into the church. The second is the Passion of the Lord. Both readings come from the Gospel according to Matthew.
Having the two Gospel passages proclaimed in one liturgy reminds us of the drastic turn of events in a few short days. Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem with great joy by the crowds who acclaim him as he enters the city. Within five days the crowds will participate in calling for his death.
While the reactions of the crowd are fickle, the triumph of Jesus is clear in both. As Jesus enters Jerusalem the crowds rightly acclaim “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest!” Then as he gives up his spirit on the cross his victory is proclaimed, knowingly or not, by the centurion who says: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
The evangelist marks Jesus’ triumph when he speaks of the “veil of the sanctuary” being torn in two from top to bottom. The image is packed with meaning. The “veil of the sanctuary” was the cloth drapery that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies — the inner-most room — in the Temple.
It was here that the Ark of the Covenant was held. The Ark contained the tablets of the covenant that Moses received on Mount Sinai. The only time someone could go into the Holy of Holies was on the Day of Atonement. On this day the high priest would go into the sacred place with the offering that the people had made, in seeking God’s mercy.
The veil would be opened as the high priest went in and as he went out. The top of the Ark of the Covenant was called the “Mercy Seat.” From here God’s mercy and forgiveness was poured out on the people.
As Jesus dies on the cross by “giving up his spirit,” he acts as the priest and the sacrifice. His offering, on behalf of the people, is his very self. By use of the Temple imagery St. Matthew tells us that this is the act that “opens the door” to God’s mercy and forgiveness. No longer is atonement sought on an annual basis, but it has been accomplished in one perfect act of praise.
The significance of the event is further emphasized by the evangelist as he uses images that suggest the world has been shaken to its core — “the earth quaked and rocks were split.” Death, which is a consequence of sin, is now defeated through mercy as the evangelist recalls: “tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
St. Paul, when writing to the Church at Philippi, incorporates a hymn of praise into his letter. This hymn is the second reading for Sunday’s liturgy and is perhaps one of the earliest Christian writings in the New Testament.
The hymn proclaims the offering of Jesus who “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross,” and his victory: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess, Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The celebration of Passion Sunday brings together the great moments of joy and sadness, tragedy and triumph, sin and mercy, death and life. Faith enables us to enter into the mystery we celebrate. It is not something that we “figure out” but rather “enter into.”
In Holy Week we celebrate the love God has for us in Christ Jesus. The passion and death of the Lord is the highest witness to this love. This love leads to life. This death leads to resurrection.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.