Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! God’s blessings on the coming one! Hail, the conquering king! Welcome the home-town hero! A ticker-tape parade along the canyons of lower Manhattan after the World Series!
These words and emotions and images were proclaimed by the crowds when Jesus entered Jerusalem in preparation for Passover, along with throngs of pilgrims from the country-side and throughout the empire arriving for the festival. These shouts of acclamation and adulation were words used for a king returning home from a campaign, or an emperor arriving on the outskirts of a newly-conquered city, the inhabitants going out to meet their new ruler. These arrivals were carefully crafted grand spectacle; they were public theater designed to make a point and an impression, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was followed this pattern, but with a number of key differences.
Jesus timed his arrival in Jerusalem carefully: it was Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, the celebration of the Israelites deliverance from exile and slavery in Egypt by the hand and power of God. There was high excitement and tension in the city as the travelers poured in; always the hope that maybe this year God would send his Messiah to free the people from the bondage of Rome. Excitement, indeed! And at the very same time, Pilate, the Roman governor, would also have been arriving in Jerusalem as a reminder of Rome’s power and control at a highly volatile and fraught moment.
Jesus launched his parade from the Mount of Olives, the very place where David had mourned over the treachery of his son Absalom, and where the prophets said that the Lord would stand to defeat those gathered against Jerusalem. And his destination was the Temple – the seat of all identity, power, and authority – spiritual, religious, and political – for Israel. The Temple – the microcosm of all that God had made; the meeting place of heaven and earth in the holy-of-holies; the center point; the fulcrum of worship around which everything revolved; the seed and promise of what the whole world would be like when the Lord returned to rule his creation. This was Jesus’ destination that Sunday we now call Palm Sunday – Messiah coming to claim his rightful place in the hearts and lives of his people; the very thing Pilate was hoping to avoid.
And yet, Jesus rode a donkey, an every-day work animal, not a royal or military steed. It was a sign of humility, tempering – even contradicting – the expectations of the crowds: the arrival of a king…on a donkey? No wonder the whole city was in turmoil, asking: who is this? The crowds answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” – a good answer, but not complete, not the whole picture.
And that question hangs in the air: Who is this? Who is this Jesus from Nazareth? What is he to us? A prophet? A teacher? Moral exemplar? Rightful ruler of Israel? The Lord and Creator of the universe, time and space, come to us in human vesture? The one who has come to save us and restore us to God’s good purposes for each one of us and all humanity? The one who will defeat violence, and war, and hatred, and ultimately death itself by the power of God’s love?
This is the question that the disciples have been asking ever since Jesus called on the shores of Galilee to follow him. This is the question that Christians throughout the ages have asked and answered in faith and practice. This is the question that each of us needs to ask and answer if we are to be Jesus’ followers, joining our lives to his in God’s project of blessing the world – body and soul, heaven and earth, now and for eternity.
Let us pray.
O God, Author of the world’s joy, Bearer of the world’s pain; At the heart of all our trouble and sorrow let unconquerable gladness dwell; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen. ~ “For Christian Gladness” from A Prayer Book for Soldiers and Sailors, 1941
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
April 9, 2017