“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,
either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10
Palm Sunday Year B:
Palms, Psalms and a Donkey!
In today’s account from St Mark’s Gospel, read after the blessing of palms, we read 'many people" welcomed Jesus. They give him a pilgrim's welcome 'blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord'. It was probably members of the same enthusiastic crowd who, a few days later, shouted aloud for his torture and death. St Mark echoes the prophet Zechariah who in a series of prophecies tells of the coming of the last king who will be a true 'prince of peace'. Zechariah tells the returned exiles from Babylon that the true king or Messiah will come not as a tyrant robed in power and might, but as a gentle and humble person riding on a donkey. They had seen powerful kings in the rulers of Babylon and their successors the Persian kings. In other words he would not seem like a king at all. His coming was to be so discreet that it would be possible to miss it.
Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, with his parade-by-donkey, is a parody of the Roman triumphal procession held at this time each year. It was an act of political theatre, that mocked the pomp and circumstance of Rome. He comes not on a warhorse but on a donkey, not fitted out with the trappings of majesty and the banners of victory but greeted with "greenery which they cut in the fields" and dusty garments. St Mark's description of the entrance of Jesus is restrained. Yet, we can catch the messianic signs. Jesus is in control of what is to take place. His entrance is pre-meditated seen in his giving detailed instructions about procuring the colt on which he will ride into the city. Pilgrims did not enter Jerusalem mounted, they always completed their pilgrimage on foot. Zechariah's prophecy laid out three key elements about the entry of the messiah: the one who comes will be the King of Israel; the messianic animal will be "a colt, the foal of an ass; and the people will be jubilant. How did Jesus' arrival escape the eyes of the Roman authorities, who were always ready to crush a potential liberator. Jesus is not an ordinary pilgrim, but the true King of the Jews.
Jesus had been preparing his disciples for the unique features of his messiahship: it would involve humiliation and suffering. Later, after all the events have played out and Jesus is raised from the dead, the disciples will look back and see the fulfillment of the Scriptures in Jesus' coming to Jerusalem. All along Jesus has been reserved about the messianic implications of his words and actions. The entry scene ends quietly with a song of pilgrim welcome, but a storm of conflict is approaching. The people have an anticipation of who Jesus is and what they expect him to accomplish, in bringing "the kingdom of our father David that is to come." But Jesus has been making it clear that his kingdom will be brought about by means of rejection, death and then resurrection in the city of David. However, the disciples and many like us have our own understanding of Jesus and what we want him to be and do for us.
What the disciples want from Jesus and themselves is triumph and glory. What Jesus sees is entrance into suffering and death. His kingship and glory will only come after the cross. Jesus might not be doing things according to people's expectations, but he will accomplish what pilgrims going to Jerusalem pray for. As they approached the Holy City, the Passover pilgrims would express to God their prayer for liberation - true freedom. This what we hope for whenever a new government comes to power. Humans fight to win elections, or take control of a country. Jesus' disciples were not exempt from these ambitions. Jesus knows that God's rule can only come by his patient suffering and death. Jesus offers us the cross not displays of power as he mounts a donkey and takes Rome for a ride it will not forget.
As Holy Week progresses the contrast between Rome seen in Pontius Pilate, and Jesus, becomes more marked. The political and religious powers will try and make a joke of him. He will be dressed in the parody of the imperial purple. He will wear the thorny crown as a mock diadem. He will bear the reed as the fake sceptre. Pilate will presents him to the crowds for their acclamation and finally he will be enthroned on the cross. The crowd give no acclamations of praise, instead they insult and mock him. However, the true prince, whom nobody can really see, is present all of the time and his true identity is revealed in the last scene of the holy drama - the resurrection. Earthly show their might through inflicting ridicule and humiliation on those who oppose them. In this historic moment, they do not realise that the joke is on them, as their pretensions to power are vain and empty. Christ, the Lord of Glory, through his enacted humility, questions the foundations of all earthly power. So we have: Two processions. Two kingdoms. Which one will we choose? It is easy to sing "Hosanna" and wave "Palms" and feel good about it, but we have to choose. I would like to join the Jesus procession, but I dare not join too casually.