We have traveled the Lenten pathway since ashes were smeared on our foreheads, and now we follow Jesus in the drama of his final days. Each Gospel offers its perspective on the events and characters that led to the excruciating death. How grateful we are for extended passion narratives, the earliest portions of these texts. The birth stories are almost an afterthought by comparison.
While there is bedrock historical tradition that underlies the work of the four evangelists and accounts for the remarkable continuity among them, each Gospel bears unique features. No doubt this reflects both the sources and the context that shaped each.
Mark, as the earliest Gospel, shapes the synoptic view that clearly links the festival of Passover with Jesus’ passion. The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest him, yet the celebration gave them pause, fearing there might be a riot among the people. Mark also recounts the anointing by the unnamed woman in the house of Simon the leper, which Jesus gladly receives even though some at the dinner gripe about the waste. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (14:9).
“As we move through Passiontide, let’s ask where we find ourselves in the drama of Holy Week.”
Yet we do not remember her. By contrast, we well know the name of the man who betrayed Jesus. Unique to this Gospel is the confession of the centurion who, upon observing how Jesus died, said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39).
Matthew offers rich detail of the machinations of Judas Iscariot. He went directly to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him 30 pieces of silver, and “from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him” (26:15-16). Judas remains as a part of the twelve, even sharing the Passover meal and hearing Jesus’ prophecy that one of them would betray him. “Surely not I, Rabbi?” was his reply. Even when he brings the large crowd to arrest Jesus, expecting resistance, Jesus still addresses him as friend (26:50). Matthew also portrays Jesus as inaugurating the passion story rather than being simply the victim. Jesus’ via dolorosa is freely chosen; he believed it better that one die than the whole nation.
Luke gives special attention to Peter’s actions on the night Jesus was seized and taken to the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance, and when warming himself at a courtyard fire, a servant-girl recognized him as one who had been with Jesus. Two more figures identified Peter, and each time his denial was more vehement. Peter remembered Jesus’ words, the confirmation of the crowing cock, and he “went out and wept bitterly” (22:62). Luke accents Jesus as the compassionate savior who identifies with the oppressed. The trial and death of Jesus confirms this as “he was counted among the lawless” (22:37) and died with criminals (23:33).
John alone places the cleansing of the temple – a deliberately provocative act – at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the signals that he would be killed loom early in this Gospel. Unique to this portrayal of summative events is the foot washing. Taking the lowliest role, Jesus models for his disciples the kind of self-giving love that he desires they express to one another. The highly symbolic scene has him laying aside his outer robe much as he will lay down his life. His washing of them connects directly to what they will learn through the cross; they will not have a share in his life unless he offers it in this way.
All of the Gospels narrate the conflicted role of Pilate, who alone has the power to condemn Jesus to death. A weak figure, he is mainly concerned about self-protection. The collusion between Jewish leaders (temple authorities) and imperial Rome ensures that the public spectacle of crucifixion will occur. Thankfully, in more recent years, scholars are suggesting a much more nuanced Jewish role in Jesus’ death. No longer should we paint with broad strokes a portrait of all Jews as “Christ killers” as earlier language conveyed.
All the Gospels witness the enduring presence of the women as Jesus dies, remaining until he breathes his last breath. They represent God’s presence even as the cry of dereliction voices Jesus’ deep sense of being forsaken. They unflinchingly witness the whole ordeal. Indeed, some of the women even follow the body to where it was laid in an unused tomb so that they might return after the Sabbath and prepare his corpse properly.
As we move through Passiontide, let’s ask where we find ourselves in the drama of Holy Week. Jesus invites us to “watch with him” as we journey in his company.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is one in a series of reflections written for Holy Week by some of our opinion contributors.