Listening to the Passion Story at Mass

Listening to the Passion Story at Mass

Christ Nailed to the Cross, detail from Stations of the Cross, St. Francis Seraph Church, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hearing the story of Jesus’ trial and death in Matthew’s Gospel version for “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” reminds me of an experience I had some years ago. I traveled to Chicago to view a special, once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of paintings by Monet. The works on display covered the span of the artist’s life. Seeing a whole lifetime of work by the artist, rather than viewing one isolated painting, helped me appreciate the larger context of Monet’s artistry.

Hearing an isolated gospel story, even one of some length like the Passion Narrative, is like viewing a single painting by an artist. We might miss the meaning from which we’d get the overall context of Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew wrote for a Christian community composed of both Gentiles and Jews. He drew on the Old Testament, comparing Jesus to the Suffering Servant character found in the Hebrew Scriptures. His audience knew that character, and understood how Jesus easily fit the biblical portrayal of one who suffered for God’s Chosen People.

Unfortunately, some Christians over the centuries have used Matthew’s words as a reason to charge all the Jews of Christ’s time—or Jews of later generations—with Christ’s death. Matthew’s language often doesn’t help, for example, when the crowds in the Passion story ask that Jesus’ “blood be upon us and our children.”  This antagonistic tone may reflect a real hostility between Matthew’s community (living 40 or 50 years after the time of Christ), and the Jewish community of the time which did not accept Jesus.

But there’s no justification for anti-Semitism, ever.  The late Pope John Paul II urged an end to hatred and misunderstanding between Christians and Jews. You and I can help to foster such reconciliation by careful—and prayerful—attention to the stories of the Passion and death of Jesus as we hear them this year on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

Featured Photo:  Christ Carrying the Cross, detail of a window in St. Joseph Church, Peoria, Illinois.


About the Author

Fr. Greg Friedman, O.F.M., is a Franciscan priest who serves as creative director on the media production team at Franciscan Media, where he produces audio and video programs. He hosts American Catholic Radio, broadcast and streamed to over 70 Catholic radio stations and available on the Web at Fr. Greg is also pastor of St. Francis Seraph parish, a part of the Franciscans’ inner-city ministry in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine area.
  • Jennifer

    Greg, excellent analogy between the Gospel writers and artists. One thinks of the way Picasso and Van Gogh changed so dramatically, and it’s an easy way to appreciate how a Gospel writer’s perspective also would morph. Do you think the same is true of understanding all the books of the Bible as a whole? So many contradictions! Sometimes it can be a little discouraging to understand it in totality. What’s your take on that?

    • Father Greg Friedman

      Jennifer, thanks for your observations. We must look at the Bible as “a library of books,” or–if you will–an “art museum” with collections of many different artists’ works. If you go to New York and visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), it’s set up so that you walk through various “schools” of modern art. That’s much like the Bible–historical books, prophetic books, wisdom literature, etc. Within the prophets, we have various prophetic books/authors, just as within the impressionists at MOMA, there’s Monet, Pissaro, Gauguin, etc. Knowing both the genre and the “author” (realizing that some books had multiple author/editors), will help us read the Bible! My take is that today, more than 40 years after Vatican II, no Catholic need be intimidated by the Bible’s complexity!