"Who do you say that I am?"
What Is Holy Week?
Holy Week, or Great Week as it is also called, concludes the preparation for Easter. The church in her liturgy does in a particularly intense way this week what she does all year, which is, present the Gospel revealed in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospel readings for this week follow the Biblical order of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, a tie between the events of the Gospel accounts and the liturgy that not even the three year Vatican II lectionary and its wannabes could break.
Palmarum or Palm Sunday offers the Passion account of Matthew. Monday in Holy Week does not have a Passion account, but rather the passage from John where Judas' unbelief, which like so many after him was disguised as a concern for the poor, is expressed six days before Passover, when Jesus was in Bethany, where Lazarus had died and and who was now at table with Jesus. Tuesday in Holy Week offers the Passion account of Mark. Wednesday offers that of Luke, and is sometimes called Spy Wednesday in reference to Judas' betrayal. Maundy Thursday (aka Green Thursday) and Good Friday (aka Lamentation Friday) both offer the Passion account of John, Thursday for the institution of the Eucharist and Friday for the Crucifixion.
In this way, the church reads through all four accounts of Jesus' suffering and death, in New Testament order, culminating in the account of St John, which is read over two days, and also commemorates the events in the order they happened. Holy Thursday has the part from St John about the Last Seder of the old covenant becoming the Divine Service of the new covenant, and the sacrament of Communion in his body and blood he instituted that night, but not yet the part about the crucifixion nor any veneration of the cross. Good Friday has the part about the crucifixion and death in which he gave his body and blood for us historically, and the veneration of the cross, but not Communion which he gave for us sacramentally the night before he suffered as the pledge of the redemption gained in his historical act the night he suffered.
Thus we have Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the sacramental event of his body and blood, and the historical event of his body in blood, in both the readings and the services in their order.
Palmarum, or Palm Sunday.
The events we the church remember this Palmarum day ask us who do we say Jesus is, because they present one answer to this question. We already know the end of the week's story -- the man welcomed with wild cheering by the crowds this day in a few days will be executed as a criminal among criminals.
But this day, such an end is not in sight -- except to Jesus. Covering a person's path is a sign of great esteem, widely practiced in the ancient near East and still a part of our mentality, as in "roll out the red carpet" from the custom of royalty. Joshua was given the same triumphal accord. Joshua -- who led the people into the Promised Land as the Lawgiver Moses could not. Joshua -- a name that is with the name Jesus a variant of the same name, who would lead the people into the eternal Promised Land as the Lawgiver Moses could not. Here, perhaps, was the Messiah! Here, perhaps, was the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of the Messiah predicted by Zechariah, to whom our Gospel account, Matthew, refers!
So how does the wild joy of seeing what is or at least may well be the Messiah come turn to a criminal's execution? It is not because Jesus turns out not to be Messiah, but because Messiah turns out not to be the Messiah we want.
Does not Zechariah speak of the removal of chariots and war horses from Jerusalem, breaking battle bows, with a reign of peace from the Jordan throughout the Earth? Yes he does, but let us not congratulate ourselves by saying that thinking of the Messiah in the political and social terms of removing the Roman occupation from the land was the failing of the Jews of Jesus' place and time, something that no Jew or Gentile in more enlightened times, oh, say us in our time, would ever do.
It wasn't a reaction to the Romans. The mainstream of the entire Prophetic tradition, from the Prophets themselves to the atmosphere in which the Apostles were raised to our own time, is that Messiah is a man, not God, not a God-Man, who will usher in a lasting era of universal peace here in this world, not a world to come, in which the light of the true God first given to a nation called out from the nations will be extended to all nations -- nothing about sin, forgiveness, justification!
Is that not the Messiah we all want -- Jew and Gentile alike, then as now? A Messiah in earthly terms, one who will straighten out the mess of things here on earth, with no reference to the mess being of our making, one who allows us to live long and prosper right here, one who asks not repentance and conversion but simply to do good works like he did, one who is about giving us a purpose driven life rather than giving us the sacrifice that takes away our sin, one who is about about giving us our best life now rather than eternal life, one whose religion is not about what he has done but what we will do to follow him? And do we not, Jew and Gentile alike, then as now, turn away from him when he turns out to be not the Messiah we wanted?
Jews typically do not believe Jesus is Messiah not because they fail to see how Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy, but because they do not see the Messianic prophecy as pointing to anything like Jesus. This was a persistent problem even for the Apostles. Gentiles typically do not believe Jesus is the Messiah not because they fail to see how Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecy, in fact many of them say he does, but because they too find the Messianic prophecy to be a matter of a good man showing us the way to live as good people, to become better people, and find in Jesus such a man. That is why Scripture describes the Gospel as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.
In the Hellenistic, which is to say Greek based, culture that surrounded Jesus' time and place, many religions existed featuring gods who had miraculous births, worked miracles, acted on behalf of man, entered the city, died and rose again, and whose followers partook of rites of bathing and eating and sacrifices, called mysteries, which the Romans termed sacraments. The Greek Dionysus, whom the Romans appropriated as Bacchus, the Persian Mithra and the Egyptian Osiris are the best examples but there are many others.
Is this Jesus too? Is he simply another failed Jewish Messiah, whose followers, when what will happen after Messiah comes didn't happen after he came, simply recast Messiah in the Hellenistic terms to fit Jesus so they could continue to say he was Messiah after all, thereby obscuring his true value as a moral teacher? Or, is he simply another Hellenistic mystery cult figure, perpetuated by those who derived power from presiding over the mysteries, obscuring the real Jesus and his true value as a moral teacher?
Who Do Men Say That I Am?
Think he didn't see that coming? That's why he asked the question "Who do you say that I am?" But note, that was not Jesus' first question. The first question was "Who do men say that I am?" And indeed, who DO we say that he is -- one of the great prophets of Hebrew Scripture come back, one of the great moral teachers in human history over whom, as with other great teachers, has been laid religious fables by those who claim to follow him but in fact falsify the historical person for a figure of faith, and in any case, a teacher, a model, an example.
Would we not cover the path of such a figure with palms, since that is the saviour we want? And would we not be just as mistaken as those who covered his path thinking here was deliverance from the Roman oppression and the start of the era of peace? And, on finding out that is not who he is, would we not shout as well, Away with him!
Who Do You Say That I Am?
That is still who men say he is. So then he asks, Who do you say that I am? Simon answered, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus told him flesh and blood had not revealed this to him, but his Father who is in heaven. Flesh and blood, that is, human wisdom, never reveals this unto us because it is beyond all human wisdom and contradicts all human wisdom. Therefore it cannot be arrived at by human wisdom nor chosen by human decision, but is the gift of the God and only the gift of God.
Human abilities even with Law and Prophecy and Writings from God could not grasp it; human wisdom apart from revelation constructs bits and pieces of it around mere fable characters who cannot deliver. Either way the natural knowledge of God written in every human heart strives for something it senses is there but cannot discern, and which can only be given by the gift of God.
The Sanhedrin had it exactly right. Jesus was not executed because he said he was the Messiah. One can claim that, and simply be wrong or right. The Messiah is a great man, but a man. He was executed because he said he was God. One cannot claim that without blaspheming God -- unless it is true. We'll take a Messiah who is a great man and leader and teacher, we'll lay palms to cover his path, we'll rejoice that what we want is at hand, but when it turns out instead he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed to be raised again on the third day, well, it shall not be like that with the Messiah we want, and thus we become an offence to him, Satan, savouring the things of Man rather than God.
Who do men say Jesus is? All kinds of things, as we have seen. Things for which we will joyfully lay palms to cover his path, or at least accord him a place in the gallery of the great teachers and moral figures to be so honoured.
And then he asks each of us, Who do YOU say that I am?
Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!
Well somebody say Amen! And here's a little Gospel lift for your Palmarum devotion.
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