Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Everybody loves a parade, right? From the televised wonder of the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade to every small town celebration of the Fourth of July, here in Kettering we have Holiday @ Home on Labor Day. Parades bring us together to honor, to celebrate, to share.
I remember the first Holiday @ Home parade I attended. GSLC had a tent by the education building and we have donuts and coffee. Then I was able to cook hotdogs and visit with people who came by the tent with seats in front of it along the parader route. I’m not big on parades myself so I’ve also been fine serving in any way at the tent and talking with people.
I don’t remember much else about that particular parade. I’m sure it was a fine affair with majorettes and marching bands, a host of themed floats, different groups on motorbikes and funny cars. The impression I have carried all these years was that I watched it from afar, and was fine with that.
It never occurred to me then to wonder about the preparation and clean up necessary to stage the event. Who cleaned up the stray popcorn, paper hotdog trays, broken candy not collected by scrambling children, confetti, cigarette butts, and horse droppings never crossed my mind. By Monday afternoon, virtually every trace of the parade was swept away, leaving downtown Kettering clean and ready for the new traffic. Yes, we love parades, we love to be part of the action, but we think not on the mess that’s left behind.
Today we celebrate Palm Sunday, the triumphal procession of Christ through the streets of Jerusalem, when the men and women of the city shouted out “Hosannah!” to the Son of David, and laid at his feet… cloaks and branches?” Why do we call it Palm Sunday when St. Matthew tells us that they laid out their winter wardrobe and yard trimmings? Shouldn’t this be called Down Coat Sunday? Brush Cutting Sunday?
If we turn to the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Mark, they also mention nothing but outerwear and tree limbs.
It’s not until we reach St. John’s Gospel that we are told that the people were waving branches of palm. Why does St. John make such a point of this? And why skip the cloaks and limbs, to wave palms today? What exactly would the palm branch have meant to the people of Jerusalem?
We sometimes retain a symbol but forget its meaning. We all know what a trophy represents: it’s the symbol of victory. But if 1,000 years from now, archeologists began digging them up, they might just see them as meaningless, decorative objects. “Gosh, 21st century Americans just loved these gold-painted figurines — little golfers, ladies doing karate, soccer balls – what funny taste they had.” To them, a trophy might be no different from a Picasso or a Bob Marley poster. And so it is with our branches of palm. We imagine them to have been nothing more than the branches most readily available for waving, but to ancient people, this would sound ridiculous, because, for Greco-Romans, the palm had a very definite symbolic meaning: the palm shouted — VICTORY!
A victorious athlete in the ancient world would be given not a trophy but a palm branch. An ancient lawyer would affix palm branches to his door after winning a case, and most of all, a general, returning to the city in a triumph, in the Roman version of a post-war ticker tape parade, would hold a palm branch in his hand, and might even wear a special toga, covered with palm branch designs. These are not simply objects to wave or leaves to soften the road; instead, the palm is the symbol of the victory of Christ, for this is the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Today, he is pictured as a conquering general, as having utterly routed and defeated his enemies. But what exactly is this victory? Who has been defeated and when?
To answer this, we must look not to the past three years of his preaching and teaching, but to the three days of his death and resurrection, for it is in his passion and death that he meets the forces of evil face to face, and the radiance of Christ, the love of Christ, the goodness of Christ utterly vanquish and forever break the emptiness, coldness, and darkness of death itself.
The palms of the people of Jerusalem are an expression, both of faith in this unconquerable King of Glory—they are so sure of his victory that they give him the triumphal parade before he goes off to war rather than when he returns—and a recognition of the eternal nature of his defeat of the enemy, for from his entry into Jerusalem, from his incarnation, even from the creation of the world, it was already a foregone conclusion that evil didn’t have a chance.
We join the people of Jerusalem in this celebratory parade and then bring these blessed branches of palm into our homes to serve as reminders throughout the year that Christ is utterly victorious, and that no suffering, no horror has a chance at lasting, because Jesus Christ has defeated evil for all time.
But we say this…in a world where missiles rain down on civilians in war zones, in which Turkish and Syrian families continue to mourn and rebuild after the deaths of thousands in a catastrophic earthquake. We say that Christ has defeated evil in the midst of mass shootings and rampant racism, we say that Christ has defeated death in the face of cancer and heart disease.
What exactly does the victory of Christ look like in this kind of world? It looks like the faith of the people of Jerusalem: in this inspired moment, they know that the raging of the enemy, the horrors of death, the sufferings of this life are not true reality, but a momentary blip on the screen, soon to be wiped out forever.
We as Christians are called to live in the light of this victory. Not by sugar-coating life and pretending it’s all honky-dory, but by looking death in the eye and not flinching. We as Christians are called to see the sufferings of the world, and not run from them, but towards them—not to escape suffering, but to see how we can comfort, serve, and help during that suffering.
Where in your family, in your neighborhood, or in the world is someone battling sickness? How can you as a Christian be a comfort to them? Be an agent of their healing? Where is someone isolated and alone? How can you as a disciple of Jesus bring them joy? Where is someone hungry, homeless, anxious? How can you proclaim the victory of Christ by feeding them, sheltering them, and bringing them peace?
We are called to live here and now, in a world of death and corruption, but also to wave our palms. To show sin, evil, and death that they no longer have power, but have been defeated by the Lord Jesus Christ, and that, at any moment now, the eternal victory celebration will begin.
But, let’s be honest, this is easier said than done. This is why the people of Jerusalem also cry out, “Hosannah!” to Jesus. We often imagine that Hosannah means something like “Hooray!” or “Fantastic!” as though it were a shout of rejoicing, but this is not the case at all: “Hosannah” is a request, a petition, a prayer, and means it “Oh God, make speed to save us!” For we on our own don’t have the courage, the grace, or the power to joyfully wave a palm in the face of evil, but Jesus, God the Son incarnate, working in us and through us does.
This Easter, how is God calling you to change? To be less anxious and more joyful, to be free to serve others in the light of Christ’s victory? Shout out Hosannah to Jesus, invite him into your heart to transform you by his grace, and then take your part in his triumphal victory over evil and death.
For those of us in the liturgical tradition, this Sunday marks the beginning of “Parade Season” in the church. Palms were waved as we sang “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” It is a triumphant and fun moment. Some will fold their palms into crosses, others will tickle their siblings’ ears with the palm tips, and all will leave at the end of the service to go back into the world and “real life.” Then the big daddy of all parades–-Easter Sunday–-will draw us back again next Sunday. There will not be as many new frocks, bonnets and gloves, and white patents as there were in the 1960s, but pews will be packed and the heady scent of lilies will swirl through the air amidst the notes of brass and organ swell. Again, it is a triumphant day–-a feel good day. We will celebrate our Lord’s triumph over death, our salvation, and our identity as resurrection people. Yes, everybody loves a parade.
But wait a minute! What about the six days between those two Sundays? What of Holy Week? What happens between the festive flair of Palm Sunday and the joyous holy commotion of Easter and the empty tomb? Who cleans up the mess in between?
The answer, of course, is God the Son. We are invited to walk along, to shoulder our “trash bag” and pick up the pieces in the footsteps of our Lord. The question is will we take the time and effort to walk amidst the dirt and trash of our lives and those of our sisters and brothers? Are we able to open our eyes and see beyond the last marcher, the last reveler?
Jesus picked up the trash, cleaning up the scum and stain of our sins and brokenness once and for all. Yes, dear friends, there is a story between the parades that we should not miss. The work and witness of Holy Week beckons.
Without fully experiencing Holy Week, we lose something valuable–-a behind the scenes look at the real cost of our salvation and the dirty work it took to accomplish it.
What if we truly enter into Holy Week and the story of Jesus’ walk to the cross? We have a unique opportunity to experience these days in word, in Sacrament, in deed, and in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, with every molecule and atom of this beautiful broken world. Yes, everybody loves a parade, but to truly appreciate one we must go behind the scenes, we must encounter the trash and the smelly, messy lives. We must walk with Jesus.
May this week bring you new revelations, deeper faith, and a holy discomfort on your way to the empty tomb. Blessings on your journey. Fredrick Buechner said it well: Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take.—Fredrick Buechner, A Room Called Remember