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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Four Accounts of Jesus' Passion Used


Why Is the Passion Read on Palm Sunday?
Did They Have Names?
Does the Devil Cause Evil?
How Can I Feel Close to God?
Did Jesus Despair?

Why Is the Passion Read on Palm Sunday?

Q: Last year on Palm Sunday they read two Gospel passages: Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and then the Passion. As a child, I remember only the entry into Jerusalem story being read on Palm Sunday. Did the Church move the Passion account to Sunday to make sure more people heard it?

Also, when Jesus comes into Jerusalem everyone cheers. Five days later they call for his execution. That is a big turnaround in only five days! Did throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple account for that change?

Finally, why is red the liturgical color for Palm Sunday?

A: There is a Passion account in each Gospel. For centuries, the Gospel of John's account was read on Good Friday and the Gospel of Matthew was read on Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday now). So that all accounts are read, since 1969 the Catholic Church reads on Palm Sunday in rotation: Matthew (Year A—2002), Mark (Year B) and Luke (Year C). The accounts of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem are read in the same rotation.

The question of the crowd's turnaround from Palm Sunday to Good Friday is an important one. The Gospels may have created the impression in our minds that everyone in Jerusalem hailed Jesus as Messiah on Palm Sunday and that by Good Friday everyone in Jerusalem sought Jesus' death. In fact, neither statement is true.

Matthew 26:5 says that the Jewish leaders feared a riot among the people if Jesus was seized during the Passover festival. Mark 15:11 says that the chief priests "stirred up the crowd to have him [Pilate] release Barabbas for them instead." That crowd did not speak for all Jewish people in Jerusalem. Luke 23:50 says that, although he was a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea did not consent to their plan. In fact, the Palm Sunday/Good Friday time span does not represent a shift from total acceptance of Jesus to total rejection of him.

Red is used liturgically on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday because that is the color for martyrs. These two feasts mark the last days of Jesus, the innocent one who died for the guilty.

Did They Have Names?

Q: My seven-year-old son recently asked our parish priest the names of the thieves crucified on each side of Jesus. When Father said their names were not given, my son replied, "They must have had names." Later, on a TV quiz show, we heard that their names were Dismas (the repentant one) and Gestas (the unrepentant one). Are those their real names?

A: We do not know their names because the Gospel writers either did not know them or did not consider it important to record them. The names Dismas and Gestas come from the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, in which Dismas convinces Gestas not to rob the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. That account sees the later repentance of Dismas as a reward for his earlier kindness to Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

In fact, Matthew, Mark and Luke call these men "revolutionaries" or "criminals"—not "thieves." The Gospel of the Infancy, not part of the New Testament, calls them "thieves." The Gospel of John does not specify their crime.

Like your son, some early Christians wanted those two men to have names. They invented names. In fact, other pairs of names have been assigned to these two men, but Dismas and Gestas have been the most popular over the centuries.

All this is basically harmless as long as we remember that Luke told this story (the only evangelist to do so!) in order to show that sinners should not despair, that it is never too late to repent and accept God's ways.

Does the Devil Cause Evil?

Q: Does the devil inflict evil upon people to test or tempt them? If so, does that make the devil as powerful as God? As a fallen angel, the devil must have some power.

Does the devil cause bad things to happen to one person and not to another? Is it just an event of nature?

A: The Christian tradition has often called the devil "the father of lies." The devil's power comes from people ready to believe his claims, ready to accept his supposed shortcuts, which are, in fact, dead ends. For this reason the Easter Vigil liturgy invites people to renounce "the glamour of evil."

That liturgy also asks, "Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God's children?" When people live according to the devil's standards, they are not more free—although temptations suggest they will be. In fact, we are most free when we live as people made in God's image.

Most evil which people experience comes from their own or someone else's abuse of human freedom. The Book of Genesis is very insistent on this point. The devil's power comes mostly from people ready to believe the devil's lies—as Adam, Eve and their descendants have.

Although we cannot afford to ignore the devil, neither can we abdicate our God-given freedom. We cannot collapse all evil into the work of supernatural forces beyond our control. Jesus has conquered the devil for us. Our lives should reflect that victory.

How Can I Feel Close to God?

Q: I am a 53-year-old wife, mother and grandmother. Lately, I am having a very hard time praying and concentrating. I do not feel very close to God, who has been there so many times for me in a way that I could feel.

I have dealt with depression most of my life and, because of recent back surgery, cannot do the walking which helped combat the depression.

Even though I try to pray the rosary each day on my way to work, sometimes I realize that my mind is so far away that I wonder what I'm saying.

What can I do to get my faith back and feel close to God as I used to? Right now I feel much more turmoil than peace.

A: Sometimes a person's faith journey may seem stalled or at a standstill. That may be your situation now.

In order for their spiritual journey to continue, people may need to identify and deal with whatever obstacles they are experiencing. For example, someone might say, "I am a good person. I try to do my best for God, my family and others, and yet I still have to deal with many unfair and unjust things."

Such a feeling is very real and will continue to hamper that person's faith journey until the situation is addressed adequately in prayer.

Perhaps you describe your present obstacle differently. Whatever it is, I encourage you to deal with it through prayer, reading, journaling and/or conversation with a believer whom you respect. Are you following your medical doctor's advice or prescriptions?

Perhaps you are angry with God but are reluctant to say so because that may sound like being ungrateful. Saying "I shouldn't feel this way" will always be an obstacle to cooperating with God's grace. In fact, we should not act on all our feelings, but we are headed for trouble whenever we deny their existence.

God is not fragile and can take a little heat if you need to vent. If you read the Bible carefully, you will see that some of the most sincere prayers (for example, Jeremiah 20:7-18) could not have felt very consoling at the time they were uttered. That did not make them any less worthwhile as prayers.

Consolation in prayer is good. The purpose of prayer, however, is opening oneself to God's grace and helping us to cooperate with it.

Did Jesus Despair?

Q: One of the Gospels presents Jesus as saying on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Was Jesus despairing of God's love and care?

A: If your Bible gives cross-references, it should tell you that this verse from Matthew 27:46 is actually a quote from Psalm 22:2. Matthew 27:35 and 27:43 are also based on verses from Psalm 22, the prayer of an innocent person.

Matthew expected that his audience—Christians who were born Jewish—would recognize these references from the Hebrew Scriptures. He uses many such references in his Gospel. This one does not mean Jesus despaired. Luke 23:46 presents Jesus as quoting Psalm 31 ("Into your hands, I commend my spirit....") just before he died.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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