Then our readings turn quickly to the less-than-triumphal nature of Jesus’ last week. The brief reading from the prophet Isaiah emphasizes the obedience of the prophet, even when he is insulted and struck; such treatment does not disgrace, shame, or defeat the one whose face is “set like flint” and who stands with and is helped by God. The equally brief reading from Philippians focuses on the “self-emptying” of Christ, his unwillingness to cling to his divinity in order to save himself from pain and death. Rather, he took “the form of a slave” and “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.” And for this reason, God has “highly exalted” him, so that all should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Our gospel lesson bears out these twin themes of obedience and self-emptying. This is the only Sunday of the year in which the gospel is read dramatically. There are several compelling reasons to do this seemingly un-Episcopalian thing. It makes the reading immediate and personal; we participate in what happens to and through Jesus. It allows us to see and appreciate the movement of events from place to place around Jerusalem, and it shows us how many people were directly involved in the events of these days. It moves quickly through complex scenes that unfold over the course of days. These are the occurrences of the week ahead.
The gospel for Sunday opens with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, with which the plot to kill Jesus begins to unfold. His death is set within the context of Passover sacrifice, and the very next lines involve preparations for the Passover and the “Last Supper.” In the dialogue of this meal and the gestures and actions at the table, Jesus’ death is presented as part of God’s plan. For Matthew, the wine is “blood of the covenant,” not specifically “new,” as Jesus’ death and resurrection are understood to be the clear fulfillment of God’s historic and ongoing covenant with the people of Israel. We move from the intimacy of the upper room to the darkness of Gethsemane, near the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley. There, we witness Jesus’ intense period of doubt and struggle, as he asks the Father to “let this cup pass” if it can; his closest disciples fail to stay closely with him, and soon the crowd appears, with swords and clubs, and Jesus is taken away without resistance or retaliation. We move swiftly to the charges being made against Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court. Again, Jesus affirms that this is all part of God’s plan, as revealed in scripture. The trial of Jesus comes quickly and doesn’t last long. The crowd demands his death, and Jesus is flogged and mocked. The crucifixion follows, and our reading ends with the return of some of Jesus’ oldest friends and their arrangements for his burial. The tomb is sealed and silence falls.
After we observe the meal Jesus commanded us to make in remembrance of him, we will strip the altar of all its appointments and depart in silence. The Eucharist will not return to our primary altar until the Day of the Resurrection. The church will remain bare and quiet.
I hope that you will come to pray and worship in our services this week, especially on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, as we walk more slowly and deliberately through the one continuous action of Jesus’ passion. You will notice that there will be no dismissal this Sunday. Our work in worship continues until Easter morning.