Monday, April 18, 2011

Matthew's Passion

Since it's Holy Week, and yesterday we read Matthew's Passion, I'm going to jump ahead of where we're at in Matthew this week to consider Matthew's take on the persecution and death of Jesus.

Yesterday I presided at my very first Palm Sunday.  I've been a priest 8 years, but somehow I've always missed the opportunity to preside on this occasion.  (Or I've blocked the fact that I have done it already, in which case, hopefully my parishioners did, too, as it was probably a mess. They say a good Jesuit liturgy is one in which no one gets hurt. I'd add, "or at least doesn't remember it later".)

What hit me, as I was participating in the proclamation of the Passion according to Matthew, is how many times Matthew stops the flow of the narrative to mention that this or that moment of the story is a fulfillment of a passage from the Old Testament.  Three times, mention is made that what's going on here is all about fulfilling the Scriptures, without referring to any specific texts. Five other times, specific texts are quoted or referenced, sometimes with an indication of where the quote is from, sometimes not. That's 8 times Scripture is overtly referenced; even acknowledging the passage's length, that's quite a bit.

And that's not all: six other times during Matthew's Passion, events play upon Old Testament citation and/or Jewish practice without indicating that this is being done.  The 30 pieces of silver refers back to Exod 21:32, in which the cost of a slave is placed at 30 pieces of silver.  The giving of wine mixed with gall or sour wine refers back to a psalm (Ps 69), as does the division of garments (Ps 22); the idea of the sun going down is a reference to Amos 8:9, and maybe to Exodus 10:22.  And the sudden physical resurrection of the dead plays upon the dry bones coming to life in Ezekiel 37. So that's 14 references to the Hebrew Scriptures in a couple chapters of Matthew.

Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal. As we've talked about before, Matthew is very interested in presenting Jesus as not a departure of Judaism, but as in line with its teaching, indeed as its fulfillment.   But 14 in one section -- that's a ton. If we lived in the world of Shakespeare somebody would definitely be wondering whether our scribe doth not protest too much.

It points to a really important insight for us, one we've heard before but that is worth repeating: the death of Jesus was a huge scandal.  HUGE.  Gods do not get crucified.  Shoot, they don't lose!  They squash, they overcome, they succeed!

In the context of the times the fact that Jesus' life took such a different and shocking course posed a huge struggle for the early Church. They had to explain to all comers how on the one hand they could be calling Jesus Lord, Son of God, etc., and on the other explain how that fits with the fact that he had been prosecuted and brutally murdered by the state.  Because that is some messed up stuff we're selling there. That ain't right.

We live long beyond that socio-evangelical struggle, but the circumstances of the death of Jesus is an invitation for us to draw up short in puzzlement, too. The cross is so commonplace at this point, we've lost touch with its strangeness.  But it is strange and awful and not right!

I was reading Ricky Gervais' blog the other day; Gervais is an atheist, and he made the quip, "If there were a God, he'd have a lot to answer for." We might not put it exactly like that, but when the crucifixion regains its wildness, there's something to his comment.  What in God's name is this about? What happened here? And how am I supposed to feel about it? How am I not supposed to be shrieking in horror, or crying out to God with questions or grief?

If you've ever said an ordinary word over and over again, or have had to type it many times, you know how it can suddenly get very strange-looking and -sounding, like you've never encountered it before and you can't quite get it right any longer. "The"... what's with that "t" & "h" together? Where are the other vowels?

This week, you might make a little time to just stare at a crucifix -- could be the one in church, the one you've got on jewelry, whatever.  Stare at it until you actually begin to see it again, and you begin to feel a little of Matthew's discomfort. Pray for the grace to let the crucifix be that wild, gaping wound, that destabilizing painful question mark in our faith.

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