Parody or Reality?
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. Fr Richard Finn preaches on the meaning of the Triumphal Entry into the city.
The desire to be met with acclaim seemingly runs deep – to be hailed as liberators, the streets of Basra or Baghdad lined with cheering crowds.
Across the centuries those who wield power also want the glory. Roman governors and emperors long ago made an art form of their entry into the cities of the empire. You can still see on the arch of Galerius at Thessalonika how the civic notables lined up outside the gates to greet the approaching emperor and his retinue.
What then should we make of Jesus and his small band of disciples as they make their entry this Sunday into Jerusalem?
Jesus on his colt, the crowds laying down their cloaks and branches, seem almost like a parody of the ‘real thing’. The dignitaries have failed to show up; a colt is no proud charger; and the disciples’ poor cloaks are a world away from the gold and purple of imperial hangings.
Yet there’s no mistaking the resemblances. This is the only time we see Jesus travelling other than on foot. He requisitions his mount as a king with authority over his subjects’ goods. And the colt recalls Zechariah’s vision of the Messiah who enters Jerusalem
riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. (9:9)
All this belongs to a royal entry, but how seriously can we take it? If this is the opening event in a popular uprising, if Jesus is asking to be seen as the Messiah who comes to liberate his city through conquest, no wonder it fails so soon.
Yet we have only to read one more verse of Mark to see that it is no uprising at all. Jesus enters the city, looks over the temple, and heads back to Bethany. The royal entry turns tail and collapses into bathos.
Of course Jesus is king. This is the Son of David entering his city. We see that at some deeper level this is the real thing, which may be why the lectionary stops where it does.
There is both a contrast and a continuity between Jesus carried into Jerusalem and Jesus carrying his cross on the Via Dolorosa. He will reign from the cross, where his triumph over evil, sin, and death will eventually be seen for what it is in the dawn of the resurrection. It is not for nothing that the Church stretches our patience by reading two Gospels on Palm Sunday — the triumphal entry and the Passion. So we prepare ourselves to see the true glory of the suffering servant. That’s the victory Christ heads towards.
Even so, we should not forget the bathos of this ‘triumphal entry’. It may not be wise for the lectionary to save us with its scissors from the collapse of our hoped-for triumph. Perhaps we are meant to be let down. For if Jesus will ultimately exceed our expectations of the Messiah, he does not do so by fulfilling expectations of a military Messiah. He is not king of any Israeli state.
Mark seeks to expose what is fickle in our hero-worship, our misplaced hope for an easy victory. It is too easy to hide from ourselves both the sufferings engineered by power politics and the sufferings of Christian discipleship. We gloss over evils we are ready to inflict; we flinch from evils we are unwilling to endure.
These two faults conspire: they tempt us to look for salvation in the wrong place, even to set ourselves up as some kind of secular saviour. Those who fail to ‘recognise’ us as such are then exposed to anger and aggression. How dare they accuse us of violence, convict us of double standards!
The proclamation of the Gospel is not the simple, once-and-for-all, delivery of a message. It is a repeated education out of our fantasies, a continual training in the way of the cross. What we hear has to be made our own, so that we are freed from the belief in a military Messiah.
In this we are not so different from the first-century Jews and Christians who thought that the Messiah should come with angelic armies to take Israel by storm. We may think we know better, but do we? In these days of war there’s a virtue in being taught, yet again, that earthly power and heavenly glory do not advance in triumph together.