April 1, 2007
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If we look closely we will see that all the gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem portray the event as anything but triumphal. Why? In the past I have spoken to you about the atriumphal entry so hopefully we can get through this question quickly and move on to other details and questions.
Looking at victory processions into cities one cannot help notice that the conquering king or general is met by the elites of the population representing the political, religious and social sectors. In the gospel accounts these elites play no role in greeting our Lord. For this reason we can say along with others that the gospels are from a political, religious and social perspective recounting an atriumphal entry. Shunned by the Jerusalem establishment there is, for all intents and purposes, nothing glorious about Jesus’ entry when it is compared to accounts of how conquering kings and warriors were received.
Yet, here we are gathered as the Church holding our palms and branches ostensibly affirming that indeed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is triumphal. But before speaking about Jesus as a triumphant king entering his city let us first take a look at the crowds mentioned in this morning’s gospel reading. In St. John’s gospel there are Jews gathering around Jesus because they think he is going to pry Israel from the grasp of the Roman Empire. How do we know this? First of all there is the cry of Hosanna which, being derived from Hebrew, means “save us” or even “please save us.” We also know that in addition to crying out “hosanna” there are those present who are carrying palms. Only in the Gospel according to St. John do we find this detail. About two centuries before the birth of Christ Israel claimed the palm frond as its national symbol. This particular crowd calls out to Jesus to save them from the oppressing Romans. They carry their palms as a sign of national pride and political defiance. Here we are reminded that earlier on in John’s gospel there are Jews who want to crown Jesus as their king after he miraculously feeds the hungry multitude (6:1-15). Rather than understanding this and the other miracles of Jesus as signs of the inaugurated kingdom of God, many of the Jews saw them as signs of political and military might. Jesus was perceived as the political, religious and military liberator. What better person could be Israel’s conquering king than the one who can feed the hungry, heal the sick and, in the case of Lazarus, raise the dead?
Apparently the Lazarus event brought to Jerusalem another crowd that was not only interested in seeing Jesus but wanted to have a look at the one who had been raised from the dead (12:12). These two crowds generated excitement and anticipation which stemmed from a gross misunderstanding of why Jesus had again come to Jerusalem. His entrance had nothing to do with worldly politics and power. Even the raising of Lazarus, perceived by the chief priests as a means to draw more disciples to Jesus (12:11), was not seen as pointing to something greater than politics, military might and religious competition.
There was a third crowd made up of pilgrims which was coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Passover. Among these pilgrims were “some Greeks” i.e. Gentiles (12:20-26) who were in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. They were also seeking to meet with Jesus and therefore asked Philip if he would help them. Philip tells Andrew and both go to Jesus. The response Jesus offers his disciples is probably not what they expected to hear and would certainly be difficult for the ears of Greeks because of the allusion to crucifixion. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also…” (24-26)
This detail which follows this morning’s reading is of the utmost importance for it prefigures the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy which foresaw all nations – all Gentiles – being joined to the people of God gathered in Jerusalem. (66:18ff) Isaiah’s prophesy points to the New Jerusalem—the new city of God – that will be the heart of the new creation. But, ironically the New Jerusalem and the new creation will begin outside the walls of the old city. Isaiah’s prophesy has its fulfillment in another Jerusalem, a Jerusalem built on the foundation of Golgotha from where Jesus “lifted up from the earth will draw all to [himself].” (John 12:32)
Coming into Jerusalem, Jesus brings himself to the religious and political elite who will arrest, judge and crucify him. In a sense his triumphal entry is not the result but the prelude to battle and victory. Why? Jesus enters Jerusalem not to face Caesar and his armies, nor to eliminate the religious establishment. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the triumphant conqueror for he sets out to build another city that will have no walls, no boundaries. He enters his city preparing to encounter and conquer the one who holds the creation in the prison of sin and death. Jesus is the Lamb of God - the victor - who takes upon himself sin and death for the life of the world and its salvation.
As for us who hold and wave our palms and branches we are not trying to reenact an event that cannot be repeated. We hold these branches and palms as a sign that we are a people who live in the New Jerusalem - the new creation - gathered around the One who has destroyed the dominion of darkness. We hold our palms and branches affirming that we are brothers and sisters of the Messiah, children of the Father and bearers of the Holy Spirit. We hold our palms and branches affirming and confirming that, as citizens of the New Jerusalem, we are bound to the cross and resurrection of the Lord.
Jesus is our liberator and healer. He is the one high priest who by offering himself washes away the sin and mortality of the universe. Indeed he is the triumphant king, priest and prophet who makes all things new. (Rev. 21:5) Amen.
Copyright © 2007 by Father Robert M. Arida