By Eugene Peterson, adapted for our current circumstances by Reformed Worship.
Consider gathering as a family, as housemates, or with any group via Zoom, Google Hangouts, or another video conferencing platform. (If meeting via Zoom, ask anyone who is not reading or singing to mute their microphone.)
Ahead of time, assign different sections of this story to volunteer readers. Print a copy of this litany for each reader or email the link to readers who are gathering online.
If there are musicians in your group, invite them ahead of time to play along with the songs indicated. A variety of instruments could work: piano, guitar, saxophone, violin, clarinet, flute, or even recorders. If you don’t have accompaniment, sing the songs a capella or sing along with a recording of your choice.
If you wish, invite children or anyone who is not reading to draw what they hear as they listen along and to show their artwork to the group afterwards.
As you begin, light a candle and place it where all can see it.
THE TRAITOR (Matthew 26:17-25)
On the first of the Days of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and said, "Where do you want us to prepare your Passover meal?"
He said, "Enter the city. Go up to a certain man and say, 'The Teacher says, "My time is near. I and my disciples plan to celebrate the Passover meal at your house."'" The disciples followed Jesus' instructions to the letter, and prepared the Passover meal.
After sunset, he and the Twelve were sitting around the table. During the meal, he said, "I have something hard but important to say to you: One of you is going to hand me over to the conspirators."
They were stunned, and then began to ask, one after another, "It isn't me, is it, Master?"
Jesus answered, "The one who hands me over is someone I eat with daily, one who passes me food at the table. In one sense the Son of Man is entering into a way of treachery well-marked by the Scriptures—no surprises here. In another sense that man who turns him in, turns traitor to the Son of Man—better never to have been born than do this!"
Then Judas, already turned traitor, said, "It isn't me, is it, Rabbi?"
Jesus said, "Don't play games with me, Judas."
GETHSEMANE (Matthew 26:31-46)
Then Jesus told them, "Before the night's over, you're going to fall to pieces because of what happens to me. There is a Scripture that says, 'I'll strike the shepherd; helter-skelter the sheep will be scattered.' But after I am raised up, I, your shepherd, will go ahead of you, leading the way to Galilee."
Peter broke in, "Even if everyone else falls to pieces on account of you, I won't."
"Don't be so sure," Jesus said. "This very night, before the rooster crows up the dawn, you will deny me three times."
Peter protested, "Even if I had to die with you, I would never deny you." All the others said the same thing.
Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, "Stay here while I go over there and pray." Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, "This sorrow is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me."
Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, "My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do you want?
When he came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, "Can't you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert; be in prayer so you don't wander into temptation without even knowing you're in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there's another part that's as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire."
He then left them a second time. Again he prayed, "My Father, if there is no other way than this, drinking this cup to the dregs, I'm ready. Do it your way."
When he came back, he again found them sound asleep. They simply couldn't keep their eyes open. This time he let them sleep on, and went back a third time to pray, going over the same ground one last time.
When he came back the next time, he said, "Are you going to sleep on and make a night of it? My time is up, the Son of Man is about to be handed over to the hands of sinners. Get up! Let's get going! My betrayer is here."
WITH SWORDS AND CLUBS (Matthew 26:47-56)
The words were barely out of his mouth when Judas (the one from the Twelve) showed up, and with him a gang from the high priests and religious leaders brandishing swords and clubs. The betrayer had worked out a sign with them; "The one I kiss, that's the one—seize him." He went straight to Jesus, greeted him, "How are you, Rabbi?" and kissed him.
Jesus said, "Friend, why this charade?"
Then they came on him—grabbed him and roughed him up. One of those with Jesus pulled his sword and, taking a swing at the Chief Priest's servant, cut off his ear.
Jesus said, "Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords. Don't you realize that I am able right now to call to my Father, and twelve companies—more, if I want them—of fighting angels would be here, battle-ready? But if I did that, how would the Scriptures come true that say this is the way it has to be?"
Then Jesus addressed the mob: "What is this—coming out after me with swords and clubs as if I were a dangerous criminal? Day after day I have been sitting in the Temple teaching, and you never so much as lifted a hand against me. You've done it this way to confirm and fulfill the prophetic writings."
Then all the disciples cut and ran.
FALSE CHARGES (Matthew 26:57-68)
The gang that had seized Jesus led him before Caiaphas the Chief Priest, where the religion scholars and leaders had assembled. Peter followed at a safe distance until they got to the Chief Priest's courtyard. Then he slipped in and mingled with the servants, watching to see how things would turn out.
The high priests, conspiring with the Jewish Council, tried to cook up charges against Jesus in order to sentence him to death. But even though many stepped up, making up one false accusation after another, nothing was believable.
Finally two men came forward with this: "He said, 'I can tear down this Temple of God and after three days rebuild it.'"
The Chief Priest stood up and said, "What do you have to say to the accusation?"
Jesus kept silent.
Then the Chief Priest said, "I command you by the authority of the living God to say if you are the Messiah, the Son of God."
Jesus was curt: "You yourself said it. And that's not all. Soon you'll see it for yourself: The Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One, arriving on the clouds of heaven."
At that, the Chief Priest lost his temper, ripping his robes, yelling, "He blasphemed! Whey do we need witnesses to accuse him? You all heard him blaspheme! Are you going to stand for such blasphemy?"
They all said, "Death! That seals his death sentence."
Then they were spitting in his face and banging him around. They jeered as they slapped him: "Prophesy, Messiah: Who hit you that time?"
DENIAL IN THE COURTYARD (Matthew 26:69-75)
All this time, Peter was sitting out in the courtyard. One servant girl came up to him and said, "You were with Jesus the Galilean."
In front of everybody there, he denied it. "I don't know what you're talking about."
As he moved over toward the gate, someone else said to the people there, "This man was with Jesus the Nazarene."
Again he denied it, salting his denial with an oath: "I swear, I never laid eyes on the man."
Shortly after that, some bystanders approached Peter. "You've got to be one of them. Your accent gives you away."
Then he got really nervous and swore. "I don't know the man!"
Just then a rooster crowed. Peter remembered what Jesus had said: "Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times." He went out and cried and cried and cried.
THIRTY SILVER COINS (Matthew 27:1-10)
In the first light of dawn, all the high priests and religious leaders met and put the finishing touches on their plot to kill Jesus. Then they tied him up and paraded him to Pilate, the governor.
Judas, the one who betrayed him, realized that Jesus was doomed. Overcome with remorse, he gave back the thirty silver coins to the high priests, saying, "I've sinned. I've betrayed an innocent man."
They said, "What do we care? That's your problem!"
Judas threw the silver coins into the Temple and left. Then he went out and hung himself.
The high priests picked up the silver pieces, but then didn't know what to do with them. "It wouldn't be right to give this—a payment for murder!—as an offering in the Temple." They decided to get rid of it by buying the "Potter's Field" and use it as a burial place for the homeless. That's how the field got called "Murder Meadow," a name that has stuck to this day. Then Jeremiah's words became history:
"They took the thirty silver pieces,
the price of the one priced by some sons of Israel,
and they purchased the potter's field."
And so they unwittingly followed the divine instructions to the letter.
PILATE (Matthew 27:11-26)
Jesus was placed before the governor, who questioned him: "Are you the 'King of the Jews'?"
Jesus said, "If you say so."
But when the accusations rained down hot and heavy from the high priests and religious leaders, he said nothing. Pilate asked him, "Do you hear that long list of accusations? Aren't you going to say something?" Jesus kept silence—not a word horn his mouth. The governor was impressed, really impressed.
It was an old custom during the Feast for the governor to pardon a single prisoner named by the crowd. At the time, they had the infamous Jesus Barabbas in prison. With the crowd before him, Pilate said, "Which prisoner do you want me to pardon: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus the so-called Christ?" He knew it was through sheer spite that they had turned Jesus over to him.
While court was still in session, Pilate's wife sent him a message: "Don't get mixed up in Judging this noble man. I've just been through a long and troubled night because of a dream about him."
Meanwhile, the high priests and religious leaders had talked the crowd into asking for the pardon of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus.
The governor asked, "Which of the two do you want me to pardon?"
They said, "Barabbas!"
"Then what do I do with Jesus, the so-called Christ?"
They all shouted, "Nail him to a cross!"
He objected, "But for what crime?"
But they yelled all the louder, "Nail him to a cross!"
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was imminent, he took a basin of water and washed his hands in full sight of the crowd, saying, "I'm washing my hands of responsibility for this man's death. From now on, it's in your hands. You're judge and jury."
The crowd answered, "We'll take the blame, we and our children after us."
Then he pardoned Barabbas. But he had Jesus whipped, and then handed over for crucifixion.
Song: "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" LUYH #704, Video
THE CRUCIFIXION (Matthew 27:27-54)
The soldiers assigned to the governor took Jesus into the governor's palace and got the entire brigade together for some fun. They stripped him and dressed him in a red toga. They plaited a crown from branches of a thorn bush and set it on his head. They put a stick in his right hand for a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mocking reverence: "Bravo, King of the Jews!" they said. "Bravo!" Then they spit on him and hit him on the head with the stick. When they had had their fun, they took off the toga and put his own clothes back on him. Then they proceeded out to the crucifixion.
Along the way they came on a man from Cyrene named Simon and made him carry Jesus' cross. Arriving at Golgotha, the place they call "Skull Hill," they offered him a mild painkiller (a mixture of wine and myrrh), but when he tasted it he wouldn't drink it.
After they had finished nailing him to the cross and were waiting for him to die, they whiled away the time by throwing dice for his clothes. Above his head they had posted the criminal charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Along with him, they also crucified two criminals, one to his right, the other to his left. People passing along the road jeered, shaking their heads in mock lament: "You bragged that you could tear down the Temple and then rebuild it in three days—so show us your stuff! Save yourself! If you're really God's Son, come down from that Cross!
The high priests, along with the religion scholars and leaders, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: "He saved others—he can't save himself! King of Israel, is he? Then let him get down horn that cross. We'll all become believers then! He was so sure of God—well, let him rescue his 'Son' now—if he wants him! He did claim to be God's Son, didn't he?" Even the two criminals crucified next to him joined in the mockery.
From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" which means "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"
Some bystanders who heard him said, "He's calling for Elijah." One of them ran and got a sponge soaked in sour wine and lifted it on a stick so he could drink. The others joked, "Don't be in such a hurry. Let's see if Elijah comes and saves him."
But Jesus, again crying out loudly, breathed his last.
[Reader extinguishes the candle.]
At that moment, the Temple curtain was ripped in two, top to bottom. There was an earthquake, and rocks were split in pieces. What's more, tombs were opened up, and many bodies of believers asleep in their graves were raised. (After Jesus' resurrection, they left the tombs, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.)
The captain of the guard and those with him, when they saw the earthquake and everything else that was happening, were scared to death. They said, "This has to be the Son of God!"
[Observe a brief time of silence before singing.]
Spiritual: "Calvary", LUH #171, Video