The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, Flandrin 1844, Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, France.
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They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” Luke 19:38.
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For those of us who believe, this Sunday and the following seven days constitute the turning point of history, the ultimate example of love and sacrifice, and the complete, supreme victory of life over death. They are the culmination of the Sacred Scriptures, called the Old Testament, and record the fulfillment of the centuries of prophecy all pointing to this one man and the events which surrounded and engulfed him and over which he prevailed. Jesus’ mission had been completed. He had gathered a group of followers who would, eventually, carry his message forward down down through the centuries. All that was now needed was for the Scriptures, which referred to him, to be fulfilled, beginning today:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Kings do not ride on foals of donkeys. This king was different.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. Psalm 118:26.
This is clearly a king of peace, not war.
And so the crowds welcomed Jesus into the holiest city on earth, Jerusalem. They had heard of his actions, all prophesied by Isaiah among others. They were spreading their cloaks on the ground before him, praising him for the mighty deeds he had been doing, his words of majesty and his miraculous curing powers. This was indeed the Messiah that God had promised the people down through the centuries. At long last the wait was over. Now was the time to re-establish David’s kingdom which was to last forever. And here was the king to lead them to ultimate victory. And then at today’s Mass, the Passion of the Lord is proclaimed. As we hear this history of events, this is not a picture of a triumphant conqueror acclaimed by all. In fact, it is the story of injustice, torture and a gruesome punishment reserved for common criminals who do not have the good fortune to be Roman citizens (for whom beheading was reserved). From the rejoicing of Jesus’ entry into the Holy City to crowds baying for his death in the matter of a few days, something had gone horribly wrong.
It was probably a toxic mixture of bitter sense of betrayal and a sense of complete disappointment in this man Jesus. The crowds had welcomed him as the new David, the long-for and long-awaited Messiah as promised by God for centuries. At last, here was the man who fulfilled these prophecies, making the lame walk, the blind see and the mute speak, all prophecies from Scripture. Then there was the conflict between what the people were expecting, and what God intended. For centuries the prophets had talked about a new David who would re-establish the kingdom as it was under the first David, all other kings would bow down before him, and he would rule with justice and peace. Now they thought such a one had arrived in their midst, the golden age was about to dawn.
And it did not. There was no call to arms. There was no summons to an uprising against the unclean, pagen Roman occupiers. Jesus quietly taught those who would listen, much as before. With the city on edge waiting for the call, none came. Within a few days, the overwhelming excitement of the crowds metastasized into overwhelming hatred and disappointment, betrayal even, represented in the person Y’shua ben Yosef, to give Jesus his full Hebrew name. This was definitely not their idea of God’s Messiah, sent to rid them of the Romans. The problem was that their vision, their stereotype, of the Messiah clashed headlong with God’s vision of the Messiah. They waited for a conquering warrior leading them to military victory and the re-establishment of the Davidic kingdom. (In fact, this is exactly what happened in AD65 and again in AD131, both times crushed by the Roman army, the AD131 revolt leading to the banishment of all Jews from Jerusalem, which was renamed Aelia Capitolina).
Jesus was no Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet he was a victor, and a victor over the greatest enemy of us all, death itself! But that was still to be seen. In the festivities of Palm Sunday, in the delirious rapture of the crowds convinced that their idea of the Messiah was in their midst, all they wanted now was a call to arms! The 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth has a scene, not in Scripture, but quite plausible, between Jesus and Barabbas at the Pool of Siloam following Palm Sunday. He pleads with Jesus to give the word for the uprising to begin. Jesus gives the absolute opposite message: Forgive them all, Romans, Herod, sinners, tax collectors, all of them. Not what Barabbas wanted to hear! He goes off bewildered and bitterly disappointed, which reflects the changed attitude of the mob a few days later. Jesus was the ultimate non-politician! He was not proclaiming what the crowd wanted to hear. He proclaimed what he believed to be the truth, but of course, the mob did not want to hear the truth, and in their hatred now called for his blood instead. There are echoes of this attitude in today’s world too! Jesus was a victim of their stereotyping him as their messiah (not God’s). Note the pure evil that stereotypes can do, based on a minimum amount of truth but smothered in wishful thinking, rumors and pure invention. We must always be on the lookout for the truth all situations and at all times and ignore any stereotype. The truth is always a message of peace, understanding and forgiveness, of love, whether we like it or not. That is the Christian way, paid for in the blood of Jesus himself.
Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Titian c.1560, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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