Palm Sunday ... an icon of the Triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem
There is a complicated set of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, Palm Sunday, 29 March 2015.
For the Principal Service, the provided readings for the Liturgy of the Palms are: Mark 11: 1-11 or John 12: 12-16; and Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29. And for the Liturgy of the Passion, the readings are: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31: 9-16; Philippians 2: 5-11; and Mark 14: 1 – 15: 47, or Mark 15: 1-39 (40-47).
For our Bible study this morning, I have chosen to look briefly at the shorter Gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Palms.
Mark 11: 1-11
1 Καὶ ὅτε ἐγγίζουσιν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα εἰς Βηθφαγὴ καὶ Βηθανίαν πρὸς τὸ Ὄρος τῶν Ἐλαιῶν, ἀποστέλλει δύο τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ 2 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὑπάγετε εἰς τὴν κώμην τὴν κατέναντι ὑμῶν, καὶ εὐθὺς εἰσπορευόμενοι εἰς αὐτὴν εὑρήσετε πῶλον δεδεμένον ἐφ' ὃν οὐδεὶς οὔπω ἀνθρώπων ἐκάθισεν: λύσατε αὐτὸν καὶ φέρετε. 3 καὶ ἐάν τις ὑμῖν εἴπῃ, Τί ποιεῖτε τοῦτο; εἴπατε, Ὁ κύριος αὐτοῦ χρείαν ἔχει, καὶ εὐθὺς αὐτὸν ἀποστέλλει πάλιν ὧδε. 4 καὶ ἀπῆλθον καὶ εὗρον πῶλον δεδεμένον πρὸς θύραν ἔξω ἐπὶ τοῦ ἀμφόδου, καὶ λύουσιν αὐτόν. 5 καί τινες τῶν ἐκεῖ ἑστηκότων ἔλεγον αὐτοῖς, Τί ποιεῖτε λύοντες τὸν πῶλον; 6 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτοῖς καθὼς εἶπεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς: καὶ ἀφῆκαν αὐτούς. 7 καὶ φέρουσιν τὸν πῶλον πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, καὶ ἐπιβάλλουσιν αὐτῷ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτῶν, καὶ ἐκάθισεν ἐπ' αὐτόν. 8 καὶ πολλοὶ τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτῶν ἔστρωσαν εἰς τὴν ὁδόν, ἄλλοι δὲ στιβάδας κόψαντες ἐκ τῶν ἀγρῶν. 9 καὶ οἱ προάγοντες καὶ οἱ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἔκραζον,
Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου:
10 Εὐλογημένη ἡ ἐρχομένη βασιλεία τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Δαυίδ:
Ὡσαννὰ ἐν τοῖς ὑψίστοις.
11 Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα εἰς τὸ ἱερόν: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος πάντα, ὀψίας ἤδηοὔσ ης τῆς ὥρας, ἐξῆλθεν εἰς Βηθανίαν μετὰ τῶν δώδεκα.
1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately”.’ 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
The Entry Into Jerusalem ascribed to Fra Angelico (1387-1455), Saint Mark’s, Florence
Reflecting on the reading:
I suppose that, like me, many of you wake up each morning to talk radio, and to the early morning warnings about traffic hold-ups and traffic delays.
Like most of us, I’m sure, I find myself wondering are these delays going to get in my way, going to delay me, am I going to get stuck, to be late.
We live in a time when time is precious, when time is money.
And so, when we hear traffic warnings in our own area, we think of ourselves but seldom think of the problems they create for those at the heart of them:
● A mother trying to get her children to school and late for the job she is desperately clinging onto. Maybe her car has had a brush with someone else’s, she has to wait for the gardai; now she is worried about her children, her job, and someone is behind, hooting.
● The bus driver who has a full load of passengers, each of whom complains in a nasty way because the bus has broken down. But who thanks him when he is on time, or when he squeezes in a few more people, even if it means breaking the rules.
● A young business man, trying to clinch that export contract. That traffic warning leaves him fretful, worried that he is not going to get from here to the airport on time. He is going to miss his flight and lose that contract
● An elderly man with a heart complaint, stuck on his way to hospital. He is worried he is going to miss his appointment, and worried his worries are now compounding his heart problems.
But, by now, I am stuck behind one or more of them. I am wondering why they are not moving. Did the lights not change to green 10 minutes ago? Why am I stuck here? Do they not know I am late? Do they not care?
We have all been there, stuck in that traffic jam, stuck in that car.
We all know how selfish we can become, how self-centred, how self-focussed we can be. My priorities come Number 1, and everyone else should know that.
If Christ was to enter the city this morning, I could imagine he would create the same problems.
Just imagine it. Telling two of the disciples to go down the road, say to Nutgrove, where they can find a fairly new car, a 2012 car, waiting for them.
The owner is delighted to hand it over. He has the highest regard for Jesus, they went to school together, worked on great projects together. He even thinks this Jesus is special.
And so the disciples happily fit out the car, and off they head with Jesus into Dublin.
As they arrive at Rathmines, the crowds are gathering. This is a big show. They follow him in a convoy, whooping and hooping. By the time they arrive in the city centre, AA Roadwatch is already warning people that a bottle neck is building up.
Well, that only helps to bring out more people to see the show. Some people come out to see who is this crazed preacher who has arrived from Nutgrove? They wonder:
● Did anything good ever come from Nutgrove?
● Why can they not just move on, and let us get on with the busy demands of daily life?
● Can they not see I am trying to get to see my mother in a nursing home?
● Do they not know a big match is on today?
● Do they not know we are still recovering from celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day – why do they bring religion into everything?
Others want to give Jesus the red-carpet treatment, today’s equivalent of cutting down branches and spreading them out before him.
If you can imagine a scene like that today in contemporary Dublin, then your imagination allows you to know also why the Gospel writer tells us that on that first Palm Sunday in Biblical Jerusalem, ‘the whole city was in turmoil.’
That chaos, that turmoil in Jerusalem, in the days immediately before Christ’s death, echoes the chaos in the city in the days immediately after Christ’s birth.
The last time there was such a fuss in Jerusalem in the life of Christ was just after Christmas. Saint Matthew records that Herod became seethingly jealous and outraged at what the Wise Men said when they called to visit him. He tells us: ‘When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matthew 2: 3). So, in the first Gospel there is a link between the birth of Christ and the death of Christ, between the arrival of the three kings in Jerusalem after Christmas and the arrival of Christ as king in Jerusalem before Easter.
That link between birth and death, between Christmas Day and Good Friday, between Epiphany and Easter, is captured succinctly by TS Eliot in his poem, Journey of the Magi:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
With Palm Sunday we enter into the last week with Christ in the days before his Crucifixion. In Saint Mark’s account, Christ arrives in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to great solemnity.
Saint Mark’s description of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem sounds the note of majesty and kingship before the Passion narrative begins. But the Gospel writer gives us hints too that we should be also looking forward to Christ’s second coming.
Palm Sunday begins on the Mount of Olives (verse 1) but it points to Mount Calvary. Yet it also points to the second coming of Christ (see verses 9-11), for the Messiah was expected to arrive on the Mount of Olives, and to sweep down through the Kidron Valley and up into the city, taking with him in his royal procession the living and those who were raised from the dead.
Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is the entry of the king into his capital. And the crowd acclaims him as king when they say: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” This phrase from the Psalms was used as a title for the Messianic king (Psalm 118: 26).
Many in the crowd expected a new liberating king. But did anybody on that first Palm Sunday really realise who Jesus truly is? Their expectations of him are high, but deep down their attitude towards Christ is unchanged. For most of them, he may still be a prophet in their eyes, but that is less than he actually is. He may be a king, but they want a king who will deliver what they want, not what he has come to give them.
The crowd that welcomes him in is soon to turn him out. He is an outsider coming in, and if he disappoints them, if he fails to give them what they want, rather than what they need, then it is inevitable that they are going to turn on him.
When he fails to meet their expectations, he loses his popularity. When he refuses to accept the expectations they lay on his shoulders, they force him to carry the cross on his shoulders. When their hopes die, he must die.
Christ choses the way he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But he abandons all choice about how he is going to be taken outside the city to die a few days later. And Christ, who receives a lively welcome into the city on Palm Sunday, is taken outside the city and crucified on Good Friday.
● Christ upsets our priorities.
● Christ makes demands on our time.
● Christ makes demands on our commitments.
● Christ challenges us about where we are going.
● And yet, Christ offers no quick fixes.
Christ steps into the comfort zones of the people in the city, and offers no quick fixes for the masses. They change their attitude, and there is a rapid, radical change in the social climate in Jerusalem that first Holy Week.
Things get out of hand, and Christ has no control over what happens. God in Christ has emptied himself of all choice and control.
So often we want to be in control, we want to have the choices. And yet life is not like that. When we find we cannot control the agenda, we get upset, we get frustrated. It happens every morning in traffic.
When we can control the agenda, when we have the choices, so often we act in our own interests, rather than in the interests of others. But, you know, we are never fully human when we are alone. We are never fully human without relationships.
Some years ago, I was taught a lesson when I saw the community in Skerries showing its true humanity, its true capacity to love, it showed Christ-like priorities, when the people gave, shared and abandoned their own priorities to search for two missing fishermen who were drowned at sea.
The images that came to the fore from that community throughout that search reminded me constantly of the Good Shepherd and his search for the lost sheep.
I am least like Christ when I put my own selfish interests, my own gain, my own immediate demands, before the needs of others.
When we value relationships, when we consider the needs of others, when we show that community matters and show that relationships lead to love, we become more like Christ.
Palm Sunday teaches us about getting our priorities right. Good Friday shows us how God gets those priorities right.
Good Friday appears to be the end. But it is only the beginning.
As TS Eliot says at the end of East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets:
Home is where one starts from …
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter ...
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
… In my end is the beginning.
Palm Sunday seemed like a triumphal beginning. Good Friday seemed like a frightening end. But in the end we find the beginning, our hope is in our Easter faith.
Easter gives us the hope that when we get our priorities right, when I turn from me to us, from self to relationship, then I not only become more human, but I become more like Christ-like. And, when we become more Christ-like, we become more like the person God created us to be.
The Collect of the Day:
Almighty and everlasting God,
who, in your tender love towards the human race,
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
Grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Post-Communion Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 18 March 2015.