Today is Palm Sunday. This week ushers in what Roman Catholics refer to as Holy Week. Today is a commemoration of the day Jesus came into Jerusalem, a week which would end with his arrest, crucifixion, and death. It is a week which Christians believe will ultimately lead to his resurrection and new life. It is also a week which usually coincides with Spring Break. So, being a teacher, I am on vacation.
Today, all over the world, people will process into churches carrying palms fronds. Both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew describe the manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem. This passage is from Matthew.
“And when they approached into Jerusalem and came into Bethphage, into the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village, the one over-against you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a colt with her. Loose (and) bring to me.” And if anyone might speak to you, you will answer, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” And this had happened so that it might be fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Speak to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king comes to you, meek, and mounted upon a donkey, and upon a colt, a son of a beast of burden.”
And the disciples went and did just as Jesus appointed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and they placed the garments upon them, and they sat (him) upon them. And a very great crowd spread their garments in the way, and others were cutting down branches from the trees and were spreading in the way. And the crowds, the ones going before him and the ones following, were crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the son of David. Blessed (is) the one coming in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered into Jerusalem, all the city was shaken, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
To fully understand the significance of the entrance, it is important to understand the geography of the region and the times in which these people lived. It is important to understand that the people of first century Palestine were awaiting a messiah, a king. They were expecting a David to come and save them from the oppression of imperial Rome and return to them the former glory of Judea.
Now this was the Passover. This was a very holy week to the Jewish people. This week celebrates the deliverance of the Hebrews from the Egyptians. The Romans sent legions into Jerusalem to make sure that no upstart messiahs would start anything. They wanted no insurrections. They wanted to keep the peace. So the legions would be marching into the city that day from Caesarea Maritima, from the west. And they would have looked very impressive. There would have been soldiers in armor and mounted soldiers on horseback. There would have been trumpets and a great folderol and hoopla. It certainly would be a thing to see!
Jesus, on the other hand, would have been coming into the city at the other gate, from the east. His entrance would have been a much different sight, almost comical. He would have entered the city on a donkey, followed by the rabble, preceded by the rabble, laying down cloth and palm fronds to greet him as a king. Here would be the humble prophet, riding on the colt, quite a contrast from the impressive legions coming from the west.
This is not to say that this event really happened in this way. I mean, it could have. It might have. But whether or not it did happen this way is not important. Matthew is drawing on a messianic prophecy regarding the entrance of the messiah into Jerusalem. Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience. He wanted to make it clear that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. Moreover, he was making it clear that this king was not like the Romans, coming with legions and weapons. Jesus brought with him a message of love, compassion, and service. This king came to serve the people. And ultimately, this king would defeat the Romans by allowing them to arrest him and put him to death upon a cross. By doing this, he would defeat death itself, and in doing so, release mankind from a fear as old as time.
And so, in churches all over the world, the story of the passion of Christ will be read to congregations, annoyed at having to stand for such a long time while the story of arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus the Christ is told.
It occurred to me this morning that Holy Week seems to happen for me every Sunday. Each Sunday I go to church to welcome the messiah into my heart. And I do so with songs and prayers and hosannas. And I leave the church with Jesus full in my heart. I listen to his teachings and I tell myself that I will follow those teachings. I will try to see God in each person I meet. I will forgive. I will comfort. I will serve. I will be more loving.
But then Monday comes around, and the real world (not the MTV show) hits me full on the face. All that love begins to melt away. And little by little, I start to kill the Lord again. I get angry. I get annoyed. I look the other way when I see someone in need. Let’s face it, by Friday I’m a real son of a bitch. I’d like to say that I’m a truly good person. But that would be a lie. I try. Some weeks I do better than others. But I never really quite make it. It’s all about making choices. Sometimes we make good ones. Sometimes we don’t. I make a lot of bad choices. On the other hand, I made the choice to be here in church listening to this very long piece of gospel being read, reminding me of the choice that Jesus made.
The story of the Passion is all about choices. Judas makes the choice to finger Jesus in the Garden. Jesus makes the choice in the garden to surrender himself to the will of the Father. Peter makes the choice to deny the guy he’s just spent the past three years following, the guy he swore he’d rather die than betray. Pilate makes the choice to hand Jesus over for crucifixion instead of the revolutionary Barabbas. The crowd chooses to save the life of the revolutionary over the life of the prophet. An unnamed Roman soldier makes the choice of offer comfort to Jesus on the cross. One thief on the cross chooses to berate Jesus while the other chooses to defend him. Jesus chose the cross. He chose to live out the words of the sermon he preached on the mount. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
Something tells me there were more people who chose to come watch the Roman legions march into town than there were come to watch a humble man of God. I don’t know. I wasn’t there, and it doesn’t say. But I bet those Romans put on one helluva show coming through the gates of the city. I’m sure they were way more impressive. It has always been my experience that the right choice is always the one that seems the least pleasant. We can choose the strength and power that is represented by ancient Rome. Or we can choose the true strength of the humble servant riding an ass.
I have chosen to be in church today, conscious of my failings, my hope hanging in front of me. And I have chosen to put these thoughts down in writing. And you, dear reader, have chosen to read them. So I guess we do make some positive choices from time to time. I have chosen to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and I am reminded of the lyrics of the old gospel song, put to a Hindu melody:
“I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.”
What choices you make now are up to you. Have a happy and blessed Holy Week.