Palm Sunday, March 20
Psalm 103 (Greek and Latin 102): One observes in this psalm a great effort to take into one’s own heart God’s manifold acts of mercy all through the history of the Bible. This is the God “who made his ways known to Moses, his deeds to the children of Israel.” This is the historical God of the covenant and the commandments: “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those which remember his commandments to do them.” It is to this interiorization of the commandments, this “remembrance” of the everlasting covenant, that this psalm summons the soul: “Forget not all His benefits; he forgives all your iniquities.”
This inner knowledge of the forgiving mercy of God is the substance of the covenant that we have with God in Christ: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel in those days, saith the Lord, I will write my laws in their mind, and write them in their hearts. . . For I will be merciful unto their unrighteousness, and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:33f; Hebrews 8:10,12). This knowledge of the true God is inseparable from the forgiveness of our sins: “ . . . to give his people knowledge of salvation, through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).
In Psalm 103, then, the soul is called to the contemplation of God’s infinite, forgiving mercy: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. . . He hath not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Indeed not, “for while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The four dimensions of the Cross, its length and breadth, its height and depth, are the dimensions of God’s mercy: “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” This mercy of God is not a hazy benevolence. It has a definite history that climaxes in specific acts of salvation: “For Christ hath once suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18). And again, “hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
This is a psalm, then, to be kneaded carefully into the leaven of the soul, for it is concerned with the Blood-forgiveness we receive in Christ our Lord.
Monday, March 21
Matthew 21:12-22: Perhaps among the least appreciated, and seldom thought on, descriptions of Jesus our Lord is the one given by John the Baptist: “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
Threshing is a violent activity, which consists in pounding the harvested grain repeatedly on a stone floor with a shovel or a flail, in order to separate it from the husks which enclose it. The discarded husks are called chaff. When this beating of the grain has been done, the thresher uses his shovel to throw it into the air, so that the wind will carry away the light and useless chaff, leaving the heavier kernels to fall once more to the threshing floor. This latter action is called winnowing.
Yes, threshing and winnowing are violent activities; they are likewise, if one may say so, very judgmental activities. Threshing and winnowing are emphatic, even ferocious ways of asserting “this, and not that.” If wheat and chaff are ultimately the same thing, then human choice is a mirage, human history only a theatrical production, and the death and Resurrection of Christ ultimately meaningless. For this reason, Jesus as Savior must not be disconnected from Jesus as Thresher.
Just where in the Gospels, however, do we detect Jesus acting as Thresher? In answering that question, most readers of the Bible would probably refer to our Lord’s driving the money changers from the temple, the Gospel text that we read today, and they would surely be correct in that reference.
When Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple, an event recorded in all four canonical Gospels, it was the most eschatological of actions. Jesus thereby affirmed that the temple really is a precinct separated from an “outside,” where are found “dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:15). Thus, the Bible’s final book does not portray an afterlife of universal reconciliation, but an everlasting separation of wheat and chaff.
Tuesday, March 22
Matthew 25:1-13: It is important to observe that all ten of these maidens are Christians. Some will be saved, and some will not. The difference between them is analogous to the difference between the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. It is bracing to consider that some will be reprobate: “Amen, I say to you, I never knew you” (verse 12). These are very harsh words to be directed to Christians who had been waiting for their Lord’s return. They waited, but they did not do so wisely, and everything had to do with vigilance through the passage of time: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming” (verse 13). Five of these Christians failed the test of perseverance.
St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome towards the end of the sixth century, interprets the sleep of the ten maidens as death. The cry, “Behold, the Bridegroom is coming,” he interprets as the angelic voice that announces the end and judgment of the world. The five foolish maidens are those who died without preparing, through their lifetime, the oil necessary to accompany the Bridegroom. When they are aroused from the sleep of death, they have nothing to offer. Their resurrection from the dead, therefore, is not a resurrection unto life, but unto judgment (John 5:29).
Each of Matthew’s four parables of the last judgment (24:45—25:46) ends with an emphasis on condemnation. The negligent servant is condemned after the faithful servant is rewarded (24:46-48). The five foolish maidens are condemned after the five prudent ones have been rewarded (25:10-12). The slothful steward is condemned after the industrious stewards have been rewarded (25:21-26). The goats are condemned after the sheep have been rewarded (25:40-41).
Two things are to be inferred from this sequence. First, it shows that the parables serve chiefly as warnings. The promised reward is spoken of first, in order to set up the warning. Second, it suggests that eternal punishment is an afterthought, as it were. It was not part of God's original plan, so to speak. He created no one for the purpose of sending that person to hell. Thus, the reward was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34), whereas the punishment was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). Punishment, that is to say, was never part of God’s original plan for mankind.
Spy Wednesday, March 23
Psalm 55 (Greek and Latin 54): Of all the things that the Lord endured in what Hebrews 5:7 calls “the days of His flesh,” one of the most grievous seems to have been that betrayal from within the intimacy of the apostolic band. As we saw earlier, this betrayal by Judas Iscariot was itself a fulfillment of a prophecy given in the Psalter: “He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me” (Psalm 41, quoted in John 13:18).
Indeed, references to the Lord’s betrayal appear in several places among the psalms, one of which is Psalm 55. Here our Lord prays in the setting of His passion: “For if an enemy had cursed me, I could have borne it; or if someone who hated me had boasted over me, I could have hidden myself from him. But it was you, a man with whom I was one in soul, my companion and intimate friend, who enjoyed pleasant meals with me; we walked in harmony together in the house of God.”
The context of this psalm, then, is the Lord’s betrayal by someone with whom He had shared many a meal, even the miraculous loaves and fishes and, more recently, the Passover Seder, on the night before He died. We may see in this psalm, then, the Lord’s sentiments in the agony at Gethsemani, as He awaited the arrival of the treacherous friend who would betray Him with a kiss and hand Him over to His enemies. Judas was a “companion” in the strict sense of someone with whom He had shared bread (panis).
The Gospels suggest that this experience of treachery from a special friend was among the deepest sufferings sustained by the One who became like unto His brethren in all things save sin. If the story of Judas is narrated in all four canonical Gospels, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christians must have thought it singularly important.
In each of the Gospels, moreover, Judas is identified as the betrayer precisely during the Last Supper — that is to say, in a context recognized to be Eucharistic. Nor is it incidental that the first occasion at which our Lord spoke of the coming betrayal was at the end of His own lengthy discourse about eating His body and drinking His blood (John 6:70f).
It is not difficult to detect the reason for remembering the treachery of Judas in the context of the Holy Eucharist. It serves as a distinct warning, right at the Lord’s own table, of the extreme peril of sharing that most holy Meal without “discerning the body” (First Corinthians 11:29). Treachery, we are reminded, was already active at the first celebration of the Eucharist. We bear this in mind especially as we prepare for tomorrow’s readings on the Lord’s Supper.
Maundy Thursday, March 24
The narrative tradition of the early Church, preserved especially in her liturgical practice, tended to fix our Lord’s sufferings and death in a determined sequence that became standard. This explains why all four Gospels are in substantial harmony regarding that sequence.
It also explains why all the Evangelists begin the Passion story on “the night in which He was betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23). In all the Gospels except John, moreover, that betrayal is preceded by an account of the Agony in the Garden.
For all that, the earliest extant version of the Agony in the Garden seems to come, not from the Gospels, but from the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is there that we read of Jesus, “who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He were a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:7-8).
In this precious text, the reference to ”vehement cries and tears” explains how the early believers knew about this event. There were witnesses to it, some of them only “a little farther” off (Matthew 26:39), “about a stone’s throw” (Luke 22:41). Those witnesses could hear those “vehement cries,” and they were able to see his kneeling posture (Mark 14:35).
All this happened, says Hebrews, “in the days of His flesh,” an expression indicating Jesus’ condition of human weakness, willingly assumed so “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
The object of Jesus’ “prayers and supplications,” Hebrews tells us, was deliverance from death. This feature of His prayers corresponds to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus prays that He be spared the “cup” of His coming sufferings (Matthew 26:39,42) and that “the hour might pass from Him” (Mark 14:35).
It was in this hour, says Hebrews, that Jesus “learned obedience by the things which He suffered,” a parallel to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus, in His Agony, submits His own will obediently to that of His Father (Matthew 26:39,42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Similarly, the Apostle Paul preserves part of a hymn that speaks of Jesus’ obedience unto death, “even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
These prayers and supplications of Jesus were themselves sacrificial, because Hebrews says that he “offered” them (prosenegkas). They are priestly prayers. That is to say, Jesus’ sacrifice has even now begun. The Lord’s Passion is a seamless whole. Already we perceive in His prayers and supplications the true essence of sacrifice, which is the inner oblation of oneself to God.
The Book of Hebrews insists, furthermore, that these “prayers and supplications” of Jesus were heard on high, precisely because of “His godly fear,” which is to say His godly piety and reverence (evlabeia; reverentia in the Latin Vulgate). Jesus’ obedient reverence is exactly what we find in the Gospel accounts of the Agony.
In what sense, then, was Jesus “heard” when he offered these prayers and supplications? Properly to answer this question, it is useful to remember a principle of all godly petition: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Now Jesus prayed explicitly according to God’s will; indeed, it was the very essence of His prayer. Therefore, His prayer was heard according to God’s will. He was not delivered from death in the sense that He avoided it, but in the sense that He conquered it, that He was victorious over death, that in His own death He trampled down death forever.
This is to say that Jesus’ resurrection and glorification were the Father’s response to His prayer in the Agony. It was in answer to this prayer, “Thy will be done,” that Jesus, “having been perfected, . . . became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). This was God’s will, the will that Jesus prayed would be done. He was thus “made perfect through sufferings” (2:10). It was because Jesus became obedient unto death that “God also has highly exalted Him” (Philippians 2:9). The Paschal victory over death was the Father’s reply to the prayers and supplications offered by the true High Priest in the days of His flesh.
Good Friday, March 24
Psalm 22: Of all the psalms, Psalm 22 (Greek and Latin 21) is par excellence the canticle of the Lord’s suffering and death.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus is described as praying the opening line of this psalm as He hangs on the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” In the Gospel according to Luke, on the other hand, the last recorded words of Jesus on the cross are a line from Psalm 31: “Into Your hands I commend My spirit.” From a juxtaposition of these two texts there arose in Christian sentiment the popular story that Jesus, while He hung on the cross, silently recited all the lines of Palter that lie between these two verses.
Whatever is to be said of that story, there is no doubt about the importance of Psalm 22 in reference to the Lord’s suffering and death. Not only did Jesus pray this psalm’s opening line on His gibbet of pain; other lines of it are also interpreted by the Church, even by the evangelists themselves, as prophetic references to details in the drama of Good Friday.
Consider, for instance, this verse of Psalm 22: “All who gazed at Me derided Me. With their lips they spoke and wagged their heads: ‘He hoped on the Lord. Let Him deliver him. Let Him save him, since He approves of him.’” One can hardly read this verse without recalling what is described in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “And those that passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying: . . . ‘If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said: . . . ‘He trusted in God; let Him deliver him now, if He will have him.’”
The Gospels likewise tell of the soldiers dividing the garments of Jesus at the time of His crucifixion. St. John’s description of this event is worth considering at length, because he actually quotes our psalm verbatim as a fulfilled prophecy: “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also His tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. They said, therefore, among themselves, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,’ that the Scripture might be fulfilled which said, ‘They divided My garments among them, and for My vesture they cast lots.”
Moreover, if Holy Church thinks of the Lord himself as praying this psalm on the cross, such an interpretation is amply justified by a later verse that says: “Like a potsherd has my strength been scorched, and my tongue cleaved to my palate.” Hardly can the Church read this line without calling to mind the Lord who said from the cross (St. John tells us): “I thirst.”
And as she thinks of the nails supporting the Lord’s body on the tree of redemption, the Church recognizes the voice that speaks yet another line of our psalm: “They have pierced my hands and feet; they have numbered all my bones.”
In addition, according to St. John, at the foot of the cross stood the Mother of the Lord, a loyal disciple to the last, her soul transfixed by the sword that aged Simeon prophesied in the Temple when she first presented the Child to God. To her the Lord Himself now makes reference in this psalm. Speaking of that consecration, Jesus says to His heavenly Father of his earthly mother, “You were He that drew Me from the womb, ever my hope from my mother's breasts. To You was I handed over from the womb. From the belly of my mother, You are my God.”
Outside of the Gospels, the New Testament’s most vivid references to the Lord’s Passion are arguably those in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which speaks of the Lord’s sharing our flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death.” Quoting Psalm 21 in this context of the Passion, this author tells us that Jesus “is not ashamed to call us brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the Church will I sing hymns to You.’”
Finally, just as each of the Lord’s three predictions of the Passion ends with a prediction of the Resurrection (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), this psalm of the Passion appropriately finishes with the voice of victory and the growth of the Church: “My spirit lives for Him; My seed will serve Him. The coming generation shall be herald for the Lord, declaring His righteousness to a people yet unborn, whom the Lord created.”
Holy and Great Saturday, March 24
Psalm 16: In addition to showing His disciples the truth of His resurrection “by many infallible proofs, being seen of them for forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), the newly risen Lord took special care likewise to explain to the Church the authentic meaning of Holy Scripture. Indeed, we know that the day of resurrection itself was partly devoted to this task (cf. Luke 24:24-27,42-45).
Thus, the Church’s proper interpretation of Holy Scripture down through the centuries is rooted in what the Lord Himself taught her during those forty days spoken of in Acts 1:3. The correct — that is to say, the orthodox — understanding of the Bible is based on what the Church learned directly from the risen Christ. Her interpretation of Holy Scripture is inseparable from the hearing of the living Lord’s voice (John 20:16), the handling of His flesh (Luke 24:39-40; 1 John 1:1), the touching of His wounds (John 20:27). The Church’s experience of the risen Christ is the source of all correct understanding of Holy Scripture.
These considerations, moreover, bear a special relevance to the interpretation of the Book of Psalms, for this section of the Bible, which became the Church’s official prayer book for all times, was singled out for specific consideration (Luke 24:44). On Pascha, the Sunday of the resurrection, when the Lamb came forward and “took the scroll from the right hand of Him who sat on the throne” (Revelation 5:7) and began forthwith to open its seals (6:1), the Church commenced likewise her understanding of the psalms. From that day forward, the prayer of the Church would be rooted in the vision that the Lord gave her in His opening of the Psalter.
We may be sure that Psalm 16 (Greek and Latin 15) was among the psalms interpreted to the Church by the risen Christ, for this was the first psalm that she exegeted in her very first sermon when she came rushing with power from the upper room on Pentecost. According to the Apostle Peter, who preached that sermon, Psalm 16 describes the Resurrection of Christ: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know — Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: ‘I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence’” (Acts 2:22-28).
Even though it was King David saying these things, the voice speaking more deeply in Psalm 16, according to Saint Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy. Peter goes on to explain: “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, he would raise up the Christ to sit on His throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:29-32).
Since Psalm 16 speaks of the Lord’s resurrection in terms of a future hope, rather than of an accomplished fact, there would seem to be a special propriety in praying this psalm on Saturday, the very day that Lord’s body lay in the grave and His soul was in Hades. It may thus serve to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection each following Sunday, when the Lamb begins to open the seals.
And as David prayed Psalm 16 in persona Christi, looking forward to the One who was to come, so do Christians, when they pray this psalm, identify themselves in hope with the risen Christ, for we too will rise with Him: “And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power” (1 Corinthians 6:14); “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:14); “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11).