Hail the King

Hail the King

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. Fr Allan White compares the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with the imperial might of the Roman Emperor.

“ You saw those headlines and you thought ‘one day that could happen to me’ and it will Mr. Blair, quire suddenly and without warning.’ Helen Mirren, playing The Queen in the film of the same name, comes out with this grim prophetic warning in an interview with Prime Minister Tony Blair as they reflect on the tumultuous days after the death of Diana Princess of Wales. Dame Helen warns the politician that public opinion is a dangerous beast to try and ride, not even kings are safe from its force. In today’s extract from St Matthew’s Gospel the crowds come out to welcome Jesus greeting him as the Son of David. They give him the Messianic title and acclaim him as the royal Son of God. As we know, it was probably members of this same enthusiastic crowd who, a few days later, shouted equally loud for his torture and death.

Matthew quotes from Zechariah who in a series of prophecies tells of the coming of the last king who will be a true prince of peace. He was writing against the memory of failed kings whose inadequacies and vanity had brought about the end of the kingdom of Judah. Zechariah tells the returned exiles from Babylon that the true king will come not as a tyrant robed in power and might, but gentle and humble and riding on a donkey. They had seen enough of 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. The advent of this king was sufficiently unusual as to be almost unrecognizable to those who witnessed it. It will appear to be the direct negative of much monarchical panoply.

Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, with its joyful abandon, which Mathew tells us, swept up even the children to participate in it, is a parody of a Roman triumph. 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 the waving of palm branches and piles of dusty garments. As Holy Week progresses the contrast between the imperial liturgy that surrounded Caesar, the earthly Lord of the World, and Jesus, the Incarnate Word through whom all things were made, becomes more marked. He is dressed in the parody of the imperial purple. He wears the thorny crown as a mock diadem. He bears the reed as the fake scepter. Pilate presents him to the crowds for their acclamation and finally he is enthroned on the cross. As his soldiers on a shield raised the emperor at his accession, so Christ is raised on the lofty eminence of the cross. Instead of the crowd of admiring courtiers shouting acclamations of praise a motely group of clerics, ruffians and disappointed idealists, shout insults at the foot of the cross. The drama of Holy Week is an exercise in pantomime. 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 drama

Earthly powers attempt to emphasise their might and dignity through inflicting ridicule and humiliation on those who oppose them, little do they realize that the joke is on them. It is their pretensions to supremacy that are being held up as vain and empty. Christ, the Lord of Glory, in his humility, questions the foundations on which all earthly power is founded. At the end of Matthew’s crucifixion scene the Centurion ‘and those who were with him’ said ‘truly this man was the Son of God.’ The representative of Caesar, standing beneath the throne of the cross acclaims the true king whose identity is now clear for all to see. Christ who submits to the yoke of the cross holds out his arms and says ‘come to me all you who labour and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest.’ ‘I am gentle and lowly of heart and you will find rest for your souls.’ The Centurion acknowledges there is another way and that there is another king than Caesar.

Readings:Matthew 21:1-11 | Isaiah 50:4-7 | Philippians 2:6-11 | Matthew 26:14-27,66

Fr Allan White was formerly Prior Provincial of the English Province of the Order of Preachers. He is currently Principal of St Mary’s School, El Centro, California and priest in residence at St Mary’s Parish, El Centro.