Saint Luke’s Passion - Forgiveness, Mercy, and Grace
commentary by Msgr. Peter R. Beaulieu
Director of Pastoral Care, St. Vincent Hospital
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord begins Holy Week and during that week of salvation, the Paschal Mystery of Christ is commemorated. In this third-year of the liturgical cycle, the Passion according to Saint Luke is read on the opening Sunday of that Greater Week (Lat. Hebdomas Maior) and the Johannine Passion is always read on Good Friday. Thus, by better understanding the Passion Narratives, the faithful can better participate in the upcoming Sacred Triduum.
The term passion narrative describes the various accounts that appear in the four canonical Gospels of the Suffering and Death of Jesus. The scope of those narratives differs among biblical scholars. The narrative can recount events in the life of Christ that begin with the Lord’s agony and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane and, then, conclude with His burial. In addition, other scholars include the accounts of the Last Supper and the discovery Christ’s empty tomb as part of the passion narrative. Often called the fifth Gospel, the Letters of Saint Paul also have affected the understanding of the Lord’s passion because, by their very nature, they are the earliest written documents on the meaning of what His dying and rising entailed.
The Passion according to Saint Luke
Year C or the third year of the Liturgical Cycle of Gospel readings not only provides this year’s Palm Sunday Passion account but Saint Luke supplies all the gospels of this Church Year which extends from the First Sunday of Advent to its last Sunday or the Solemnity of Christ the King. Following Easter Sunday, instead of the first readings being taken from the Old Testament, by ancient tradition, they are taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Saint Luke is the author of both the Gospel that bears his name and the Acts.
It aids in the appreciation of the Lucan Passion to realize that relationship. During the Lord’s Passion, accused by the chief priests and scribes of perverting the nation, Jesus’ infancy and spiritual upbringing was in keeping with the Mosaic Law. Conversely, while His opponents claimed He forbade them to pay tribute to Caesar, just prior to the Passion, Jesus told them to render to Caesar what was due. Such obvious contradictions highlight their duplicitousness and, so, the Lord’s real innocence.
In addition, even earlier than the actual unfolding of the Passion, Jesus had deliberately set His sights on getting to the Holy City of Jerusalem. In Chapter 15 of his Gospel, Saint Luke recounts a unique series of parables that highlight the merciful love of God—these passages praise the mercy shown by the father to the Prodigal Son and the Samaritan who cared for the man beset by thieves on the road to Jericho. Thus, by forgiving those who crucified Him, the pain forgiveness incurs and the freedom offering it brings reached its ultimate stage.
After Jesus spent forty days in the desert, rebuffing the devil’s temptations, having been unsuccessful in deterring Him from pursuing His mission, the devil left Jesus alone “until an opportune time” which proved to be the time of His passion or “the time of darkness.” Always the opportunist, Satan entered the heart of Judas and prompted Simon Peter to deny knowing Jesus three times. Unlike the oldest version of the Passion Narrative, Saint Luke mitigates the failures of the apostles and, even goes so far as to avoid telling his listeners or readers that they abandoned Jesus at His darkest hour in order to save themselves and he notes that some unnamed male friends of Jesus were present at Calvary, too.
Following the Resurrection, this divinely-inspired gospel-writer situates all the appearances of the Risen Christ in Jerusalem and its surrounding precincts and focuses his attention on Saints Peter and John who assume a principal role in the Acts of the Apostles and in the nascent Church. When Saint Paul is hauled before the same authorities in the Book of Acts, he duplicates what had happened to Jesus during His passion and its trial before Herod and Pilate. Then, too, when the protomartyr Stephen is stoned by sympathizers to Saul, Christ-like, Stephen forgives his murderers, too!
In Saint Luke’s two-part gospel and history of the early Church, the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus as the Messiah who by His paschal mystery confirms His divine origins, Saint Luke deliberately links the Christ ultimately to the Church who continues what the Lord began. The Passion drama begins in the Mount of Olives with Jesus praying to the Father and, then, His ultimate arrest (Lk 22:39-53). In these verses, the focus is upon Jesus and the unique attributes that Saint Luke uses to create a similar, yet different, portrayal of Him.
Not only is mercy suffused throughout this gospel but Jesus is depicted as frequently praying. Here, His prayer begins and ends with Jesus declaring His willingness to do the Father’s will. In reply, God sends an angel to comfort Jesus; yet, this divine assistance results in Jesus’ agony (Gk. ἀγωνία) or the feeling of an athlete before a contest—self-imposed pressure experienced in an intensely personal manner. From this spiritual experience and inner struggle, Jesus emerges as ready to face what lies ahead. When the high priests and officers of the Temple come to arrest Him, Saint Luke omits the betrayer’s kiss and the scene culminates in Jesus’ declaration this is the hour when darkness prevails.
Led out of the Garden (Lk 22:54-71) Jesus is taken to the High Priest’s house, but no trial occurs until dawn comes; instead, the focus is upon the courtyard and Peter’s triple denial of ever knowing Jesus. Yet, the look that the Lord cast in Peter’s direction is what causes that apostle’s deep remorse. Remaining in the courtyard, Jesus is ridiculed and abused as a prophet that serves to validate what He had said earlier that He was destined to die in Jerusalem. Surviving such spiritual and emotional torment, Jesus is led away to the Sanhedrin. They question Him about who He is – the Messiah or the Son of God. Jesus answers their questions ambiguously and avoids pressing His interlocutors. Remaining composed throughout, Jesus exhibits a reassured demeanor that is divine in its origin and also undergirds His innocence. At the trial, before Pilate and Herod (Lk 23:1-25), there are detailed charges of breaking Roman law and the august nature of the Roman Emperor Caesar while the imperial officials are oblivious to the religious issues that are at the heart of the matter. Pilate is eager to let Jesus go with a flogging; yet, upon learning Jesus was a Galilean, the governor knew Herod was in Jerusalem for the feast and, so, he sees an opportunity to avoid difficulties and sends Jesus to Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod, too, determines Jesus is innocent.
The ultimate section is the Crucifixion and Jesus’ eventual Death and Burial (Lk 23:26-56). Though inconclusive, the impression is given that those who seized Jesus are the ones who crucify Him; yet, some Jews who were not disciples are affected by His suffering and death. These daughters of Jerusalem are addressed by Jesus, though He focuses on the fate of David’s City which has always killed the prophets God sent to its citizens, using oracles borrowed from Isaiah and other prophets. Then, upon reaching Golgotha, His first words are forgiveness for the ignorance of those determined to put Him to death. Ignorant of what they were doing, so exonerated, this exemplifies the forgiveness that should be extended to those who have sinned against us.
His magnanimity is mocked by the rulers, the Roman soldiers, and one of the two criminals crucified along with Him. The good thief acknowledges his own guilt and attests to the Lord’s innocence and even addresses the Lord by using the rarely used name Jesus. In the final hours, between noon and three o’clock, darkness covers the earth, yet the Savior’s last words are an act of trust, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” an adaptation of Psalm 31. Only acts of grace follow the Lord’s death on the cross—the centurion affirms His innocence, the Jewish crowd left the Place of the Skull repentant, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus’ body, and the Galilean women observed what happened from afar and prepare spices for His burial. The Passion according to Saint Luke starkly portrays Christ crucifixion as a time of forgiveness and grace given to atone for the world’s sins.