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Holy Week: Act I, Introit
The Pageantry of Palm Sunday
Act I, Introit
It was a logistical coup de grâce. A particular date selected. A specific route charted. Unwitting servants dispatched on curious errands. Livestock suddenly procured for the event. And all of this orchestrated by One who, up until now, had labored hard to avoid bringing undue attention to Himself. But this was a moment He had been planning for some time. A long time. And it would be a marvelous piece of public street theatre.
For His entrance into Jerusalem, on what would be the last week of His earthly life, Jesus shamelessly borrowed from the pages of the prophets and the diaries of kings all the relevant images necessary to properly set the stage for the strange work which lay ahead. He was coming to show His people (and indeed the entire world) that He was their long-awaited king. The time for discretion had passed. No more quashed testimonies of miracles performed in secret. No more retreating from ever-growing crowds. Now was the appointed hour—the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
On the day upon which sacrificial lambs were selected for the Passover, the Paschal King rode into the city of David on the back of an untamed colt. Untamed, that is, until broken by the ineffable holiness of its rider. Winds and waves and wild beasts already knew what all men and women will eventually learn—what Longinus would declare in but a week’s time—that this man truly is the Son of God. And what a spectacular display of pageantry it was as the Lamb rode a donkey into town!
But why a donkey of all things? Certainly Jesus could not walk into the city. Kings mustn’t go strolling about on foot. That is the mode of common men, not messiahs. Of course walking had been perfectly acceptable until now, perhaps even necessary if He wanted to maintain some level of secrecy as to His full identity as the Crown Prince of Heaven. But now He must ride. So even the decision concerning that which would bear Him along the streets of the city became a most important one.
In those days when a king rode a stallion into a city it was a statement of conquest by means of warfare. He was claiming that place by virtue of his military strength. The sound of approaching hoofbeats usually meant blood and death and loss and pain. And it was certainly expected by many that Israel's Messiah should come bursting through the gates of Jerusalem astride a dazzling white steed, reins in his teeth, sword in his hand. But that was not the image that Christ wanted to invoke. At least, not yet.
By contrast, Jesus chose to reveal Himself as the Prince of Peace. So He did what so many before him had done—He came riding upon the back of a lowly ass. This practice had a long, regal history in Israel. It was inaugurated by David and followed by Solomon at the time of his coronation as Israel’s king. Donkeys were kingly transportation. The practice most likely began precisely to exhibit a modicum of humility for royal persons so often tempted by pride. Ambling around on an ass was thought, with warrant, to disabuse its driver of certain notions of pomposity. In the case of Jesus, the pride was not to be found in the rider but in those who surrounded Him. (The comic display of God coming to us on a swayback ass should remind the lofty-eyed among us that God, Who alone is wise, is happily given over to such eternal foolishness (1 Cor. 1:25). Part of the "good news" of Palm Sunday is the realization that God does not suffer fools gladly; He saves them. In this Divine Comedy, the foolishness of God outstrips the craftiness of hell; mortal folly lies in rejecting this "Savior of Fools.")
The practice was later imbued with prophetic intensity when Zechariah foretold that Israel’s king would come to her “righteous and having salvation,” and that He would be “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech. 9:9). The image is intensified further as the prophet foretold that this King would bring about everlasting and universal peace. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, this King would silence the war horse and cut off the chariots from Jerusalem; the battle bow would be broken, and He would “speak peace to the nations,” and the reach of his reign would extend from “sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10).
This “peace” is linked to the “blood of the covenant” in Zechariah’s prophecy; a reference powerfully pregnant, and pulsing with redemptive energy. A peace won for all people, effectively making all people one, grounded in the blood of the covenant—that’s the gift of Zechariah’s humble king; a new covenantal unity, a new sacramental vitality, a new eschatological reality!
Thus Jesus doesn’t come bearing a sword. The time of judgment is not now; now is the time of suffering. Now is the time to act as king; kings give their lives for their people. And His given life is the source of that mighty river which will ultimately drown the world in a monumental deluge of peace.
It was just this picture that Jesus had in mind when He sent his disciples to fetch a foal. And it worked brilliantly. As great David’s Greater Son passed through the gates atop a humble beast of burden, the crowd reacted immediately with joyful recognition. “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they shouted, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” For once, the consensus of the crowd was trustworthy. And more astonishingly still, they had their theology right! They recognized the Christ in their midst. They recognized Him as David’s heir, and they recognized that His mission was a divine one.
As their cries of joy grew in strength, so too did their own sense of pageantry. At once, they began tossing their cloaks along the pathway and piling up palm branches in the street. These items evoke images of both regal and divine glory. Only one other figure in Sacred Scripture ever rode upon a carpet of garments (2 Kings 9:13), and Jehu, too, was headed to a temple that would be destroyed (2 Kings 10:18-28). As far as the palm branches are concerned, they were commonly used when the Jews celebrated their annual Feast of Tabernacles, as they commemorated the Lord’s manifest presence with them throughout their wilderness sojourn. Palms symbolized for them the "Glory Cloud" which guided and guarded them on the way. Now, here comes a peaceable king, riding on a donkey, riding atop strewn garments, riding “on the clouds of glory” as He makes His way towards the temple on lamb selection day.
The imagery is almost too much to take in. No wonder the scribes and the pharisees got positively bent out of shape! But Jesus was, as they say, just getting started…
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If T.S. Eliot had been a basketball fan…
March is the maddest month, breeding
Jesuits out of Spokane, mixing
Bruins, Hogs, and Spartans, stirring
Tigers to near wins.
Badgers showed us up, covering
Carolina in shame, feeding
A little crow to proud Tar Heels.