O Jerusalem, Jerusalem
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord | Fr Robert Ombres meditates on our entry in Jerusalem together with Jesus as Holy Week begins.
Together with Jesus, we enter Holy Week at Jerusalem.
A city, then as now, where a remarkable awareness of the presence of the holy has regularly intertwined with violence. As Jesus and the disciples made their puzzling entry into Jerusalem, a festive and agitated crowd gathered. Some people threw down their clothes, while others hacked down branches to spread in Jesus’s path. Religious acclamations were shouted out. Not long after, Jesus’s life would end in bloodshed.
Passover time was volatile and fraught, the Romans needing to increase security. Crowds are a jumble of people and expectations, and not always predictable in their reactions. For those with more revolutionary messianic hopes, the use of branches would recall the Maccabean triumphs. The spread- out garnments could be seen as a royal acclamation. When Jesus was born, St Matthew notes that Jerusalem had been ‘troubled’. He now uses an even stronger term, saying the city ‘quaked’.
So who can now reconstruct accurately the mix of heightened religious beliefs, political hopes, and sheer excitement generated by Christ’s entry into Jerusalem? It would not have been rare for those in Jerusalem to go out into the streets to greet arriving pilgrims. Leaving Jericho in the east, this group could have taken the Roman road climbing thousands of feet up to Jerusalem. Pilgrims coming from that direction would arrive at Bethphage, across the Kedron valley. Jerusalem would then come into sight.
But this entry would turn out to be unique and momentous. The entry was made by Jesus, humble, with a pair of beasts of burden, yet it gathered shouting crowds in front and behind him. For some this might have been a parody or reversal of the triumphal entry of kings and emperors, for some it could have announced that the restoration of the Davidic kingdom was at hand, for others a symbolic statement was being made that here indeed was a ruler but with a new, redefined kind of authority.
In no sense was Jesus deluded in his entry into Jerusalem, and our faith in him is that he accomplished God’s providential plan. Neither are we deluded nor under an illusion in believing there is a divine plan established from eternity and progressively revealed to believers. The variety of reactions to his saving work will continue to be presented to us throughout Holy Week.
Today at Mass, the Lord’s entrance will be commemorated, whatever its form may be: with a procession or a solemn entrance or a simple entrance. Then the Passion will be read or sung. The liturgy indicates that it is ‘Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord’. As well as recording the variety of reactions to and beliefs about Jesus, the Scriptures as understood by the Church will unfold the real and saving meaning of what is being said and done by Christ himself.
There was indeed an entry into Jerusalem, there were very significant events in that city, and then came the Passion and resurrection. We need, however, to go step by step in Holy Week and not neglect to meditate at some depth as we go. St Matthew tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem the city was in tumult, quaking indeed, with people asking ‘Who is this?’.
And we Christian believers need constantly to deepen our own faith, and help those who in different ways still ask about Jesus Christ: who is this? The answer is shattering in its power. Jerusalem quaked when Jesus entered it, the earth would quake as Jesus died, and there was a strong earthquake as the angel descended onto the empty tomb. The impact of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is without precedent.
The good news of salvation must not be tamed. Jesus Christ has a sovereign authority not known before on earth, he reigns with the kind of power that is a unique love. He makes a difference to everyone and to everything. The bible’s last book, the Apocalypse, keeps before us the sight of a new heaven and a new earth. There is a holy city too, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
Photography by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral.