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The Passion Narratives:
The Cross Takes Center Stage

by Carol Luebering

I could tell you all about my dad without ever mentioning how he died. Although, like most people, he faced his impending death the same way he went at life, the cancer that killed him was an unwelcome intrusion. It did not spring from who he was.

Jesus' death, however, reveals most clearly his identity and his mission—especially when we see it from the perspective of Easter. The crucifixion is the centerpiece of the Gospels. The cross shadows all four narratives from the beginning—in the fate of John the Baptist, who is the first actor on the stage in Mark and whose destiny Luke links to Jesus from their conceptions; in Matthew's account of the slaughter of the innocents; in the dark mention of rejection in John's Prologue. We cannot know who Jesus is, the evangelists insist, until we know how he died. Indeed, our conception of Jesus' death colors our vision of God, our sense of Jesus' mission and our understanding of human suffering and death.

We think we know the story well. Musicians have set the "seven last words," gleaned from the four Gospels, for our reflection. We walk the Stations of the Cross, unaware that they include details never mentioned in Scripture (Jesus falls on the way to Calvary and Veronica's gesture of sympathy, for example). Let's take a closer look at what the Gospels do tell us.

Making Drama From History

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing about 100 C.E. (Common Era), gives a nod to the facts with mention of a man "who was put to death during the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate."

The Gospels display remarkable consensus about many of the details: Jesus presented a challenge to his own religious tradition. Some religious leaders, determined to be rid of him, plotted with one of his own disciples, who agreed to betray him. After celebrating an extraordinary meal with his closest friends, Jesus was arrested on Mount Olivet, and someone lopped off the ear of the high priest's servant in the melee. Jesus was interrogated by the religious leaders, three times denied by Peter and abandoned by most of his followers. He was delivered to the Roman authorities for trial as an insurgent and sentenced to death. He was scourged and crucified with two other malefactors and laid in a nearby tomb.

So much for the facts. The rest is drama, woven from the evangelists' separate emphases on different aspects of Jesus' identity.

Mark, author of the oldest Gospel, stresses Jesus' humanity. His account of Jesus' death speaks of God's plunge not only into human life but also into the profoundest depths of human misery. His Jesus dies alone, abandoned by all his disciples (not until after Jesus' death does Mark tell us that some women were "looking on from a distance"). Jesus speaks just once from the cross, a lament drawn from Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" he screams and dies. But at this moment of absolute human desolation, Mark plays at last the card he has been holding close to his chest all through the Gospel: The centurion in charge of the execution cries out, "Truly this man was the Son of God!"

Matthew follows Mark's narrative very closely, adding just a few touches of his own. Ever eager to convince his Jewish-Christian audience that Jesus is the new Moses, the fulfillment of the Scriptures, he weaves abundant Old Testament references into the passion account—as he has throughout his Gospel. Even the line that Christians have too often used as a justification for persecuting Jews—"His blood be upon us and upon our children"—echoes earlier writings. It is a formula for assigning guilt to those personally responsible for a death (see 2 Samuel 3:28-29; Jeremiah 26:15). It is not a condemnation of the whole Jewish people—as Matthew's Jewish-Christian readers would have clearly understood.


Let's hit the pause button here and take a closer look. There does seem to be anti-Jewish bias in the sacred texts. John's Gospel especially speaks of Jesus' opponents as "the Jews." But Jesus' family, disciples and admirers were also Jews. So, for that matter, was Jesus himself. How did Christians develop such bitter feelings toward the Jews?

A few years before the Gospels were written, Rome invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple—and with it, the temple priesthood and a liturgy centered on animal sacrifice. Maintaining Israel's ancient faith fell to laypeople—the Pharisees, whose concern for Jewish identity led them to enforce strict orthodoxy. (In the 16th century, Catholics reacted much the same way to the Reformation.)

Jewish worship became a kind of prayer meeting held in the synagogue (from the Greek for assembly). The service was a combination of Scripture, prayer and preaching that laid the pattern for our Liturgy of the Word. Early Christians came to the synagogues on the sabbath (Saturday) and on Sunday broke the bread of Eucharist in the name of someone they called the Son of God. That title bore the taint of polytheism to many Jews. After all, Jews adhered so strictly to faith in the one God that even mighty Rome excused them from offering sacrifice to the gods.

In Matthew's day (sometime in the 80's), lively discussions about Jesus' identity took place in the synagogues. By John's time, the last decade of the first century, disagreements had grown strong enough that the Jews had begun to eject the "heretics," not only cutting them off from their religious roots but also exposing them to deadly Roman accusations of "atheism."

At the same time, the gospel was spreading into the Greek and Roman world. By the end of the first century, the majority of Christians came from Gentile backgrounds. As the Jews became "them," not "us," the followers of the man who commanded love of enemies began to twist Scripture to blame "them" for their Lord's death.

Back to the Drama

For Matthew, Jesus' last cry marks a birth pang. The light of the new Israel breaks into the darkness of Calvary. As in all four Gospels, the veil that shields the Holy of Holies (which only the high priest could enter and he but once a year) from the rest of the temple is rent top to bottom. Matthew adds an earthquake and shattered rocks; the holy dead leave their tombs to walk in the city. The whole Roman guard proclaims Jesus the Son of God.

In Luke's narrative, Jesus is still the healer and reconciler, still reaching out to sinners, women, Gentiles and other outcasts. He turns toward Peter after his disciple's threefold denial, and it is Jesus' glance, not the crowing cock, that strikes remorse in Peter's breast. Luke's Jesus promises redemption to the felon crucified beside him and speaks the words that forever echo in Christian hearts: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." And "all the people who had gathered for this spectacle" head home weighted by remorse, "beating their breasts"—even while "all his acquaintances" still stand at a distance (see Luke 23:48).

John tipped his hand in the opening sentence of his Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word...." The divine light shining in Jesus does not flicker in the dark and bloody events of Good Friday. Even those who have lingered in darkness, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, are drawn into its radiance before the story ends.

John's passion lends an air of triumph to the Good Friday liturgy. (We hear one of the others on Palm Sunday.) His Jesus is fully in command from the moment of his arrest. He puts his accusers on trial, questioning both the high priest and Pilate, and claims his kingdom in Pilate's presence. No Simon of Cyrene appears in this Gospel; Jesus carries his own cross. His courtiers stand beneath his cruciform throne—his mother and the beloved disciple among them—and he binds them in community. Even death awaits his decision. He says, "It is finished," bows his head and hands over his spirit. His burial is royal, not a hasty affair to be completed by the women on Sunday morning. The amount of spices tucked into his burial cloths would suit any king (see John 19:39-40).

John makes a significant shift in the time frame of the passion. In the other Gospels Jesus' arrest occurs after a Passover meal; in John he is led out to Calvary before Passover begins—at the very hour the temple priests begin to slaughter the lambs for the ritual supper. Jesus is the Lamb of God whose blood marks the doorposts of God's people, his bones unbroken (see Exodus 12:1-13; 46). From his pierced side rush the living waters promised in the fourth chapter of John's Gospel.

Rewind to Scene I

The above summary barely skims the surface of the passion narratives. To enter fully into the drama, tum to your Bible and read just the four versions of Scene I: the events in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-52; Matthew 26:36-56; Luke 22:39-54; John 18:1-14).

In the first three accounts, a troubled and anxious Jesus goes to the garden with the disciples who have witnessed the high points of his life (the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus' daughter)—Peter, James and John. He entreats their support as he wrestles in prayer with his approaching death, only to find them sleeping each time he goes back to their company. (The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar suggests that the last ritual cup of wine at the supper made them drowsy!) Notice Luke's gentler touch: They sleep only once, and Jesus does not chide them.

This is the only time in the Gospels we eavesdrop on Jesus' prayer. It sounds remarkably like the Our Father (surprise!), as does his admonition that the disciples should pray "not to undergo the test." Mark's and Matthew's Jesus, like most of us at times, gets no answer to his prayer. Luke's gains comfort and strength. John's Jesus, of course, has no distress to pray over.

Then the arresting party arrives, led by Judas. John's crowd includes Roman soldiers—a hint of collusion between "church" and state that surprises us if we forget that the distinction didn't exist in Jesus' day. His milieu was more like Khomeini's Iran than the United States.

Judas offers an agreed-upon kiss, which is helplessly accepted in Mark and Matthew. Luke's Jesus holds the traitor to account. Even Judas would not attempt such lese majeste in John!

Watch closely as a sword severs a man's ear. In Mark, the swordsman is an unidentified "bystander"; the act could be an accident in the press of the crowd. Matthew and Luke put the offender in Jesus' company. Matthew's Jesus cannot resist delivering a last lesson, warning that "all who take the sword will perish by the sword." Luke's Jesus heals the wound with a touch. John names the wounded man and the attacker, and the awful truth is out. Peter denies his Master's teaching before he denies the man!

Following Mark, Luke and Matthew echo Jesus' rebuke to the secrecy of the arrest. Matthew's Jesus adds that the show must go on in order to fulfill the Scriptures. John's Jesus takes control, identifying himself with the divine name: I AM—and they all fall down.

Upon his arrest, all Jesus' friends flee in Mark. One even slips free of the garment grabbed by a member of the arresting party and "streaks" off—leaving everything to avoid following Jesus! If you read on, you'll find Peter following at a distance in the other Gospels, accompanied by "another disciple" in John.

By all means, read on! The story of Jesus' crucifixion is a dramatic struggle between life and death, of the God-man facing the powers of darkness, of triumph won in defeat. The cross of Jesus is the enduring sign of God's faithful love and the pattern for our lives.

Carol Luebering is the editor of Weekday Homily Helps, also from St. Anthony Messenger Press. She is a regular contributor to several homily services.



Talking About Scripture

  • Read the four passion narratives one scene at a time. What difference do you note in the way the action unfolds?
  • What characters appear in each account?
  • Look up the Old Testament references (check the footnotes in your Bible).
  • What impressions of Jesus emerge?

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