Today marks the beginning of Holy Week. The most important week of the Church Calendar. As many of you know I didn’t grow up in the church so I learned about what Holy Week is later in life. When I attended Princeton Seminary I realized that many of my classmates, although they had grown up in the church, didn’t have a clear understanding of Holy Week either. For them, it was a week when their families would attend extra worship services with even more beautiful music that led up to Easter. And yes it is all of the above, but to know why we have extra worship services and special music makes those worship services even more special. I’d like to take a moment to reflect on why this week is so special and why it is holy.
The beginning of Holy Week is Palm Sunday when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to much fanfare. It’s known as Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry.” There’s great excitement in the air with people yelling “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” A reference to Psalm 118, which would be sung by pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem for important Jewish holidays such as Passover. Luke adds in “King” to signify that Jesus is the savior and rescuer, the Messiah that all of Israel has been waiting for. Many laid down their cloaks (for some the only cloak they owned) before Jesus to show that they held him in such high regard they didn’t want the colt he rode on to touch the ground.
On Maundy Thursday a few important things happen. Jesus shares the Passover meal, which is to be his last meal (or last supper), with the disciples, but it’s at that meal he introduces the sacrament that we know today as Communion. On this night he also washes the feet of the disciples to show that while he is the king, he came to humbly serve his people. Maundy Thursday is also when he is betrayed by Judas and handed over to the authorities.
Good Friday is when Jesus is tried, found guilty, is crucified, and dies. Why we call such a day “good” is because while we remember Jesus’ painful and violent death for us and our salvation, it foreshadows what is to come, which is of course Easter when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
But let’s get back to Palm Sunday. I thought these pictures would give us an idea of what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem may have looked like.
In this artist’s rendition, people are laying down their cloaks before Jesus and waving Palm Branches. While it’s very much a joyous event, it’s a simple one. Jesus is riding in on a donkey instead of a majestic stallion. He doesn’t wear a crown or any special garb. Now let’s contrast this photo with another type of processional.
This artist’s rendition is of a “Roman Triumph,” which is a processional giving honor to a high-esteemed general or the Emperor himself. Notice whoever this guy is he’s not a donkey. There’s a herd of impressive war horses ridden by intimidating roman soldiers that lead the processional. Instead, he’s on a golden chariot pulled not by one, but by four majestic stallions. There’s a lot of gold and armor involved here. Not a shabby cloak to be found.
The earliest of these “Roman Triumphs,” according to historians, were held to celebrate a Roman general as he returned with prizes of a recent victory. In front of the soldiers could be a display of jewels and other exotic valuables of the latest people group that Rome had conquered. Also in this processional were citizens of those conquered territories who were now prisoners of Rome. Such individuals were made slaves at best or executed at worst.
This is from the relief on the top of the Arch of Titus (which still stands in the Roman Forum). This shows what Titus and his army took from the Temple when they captured Jerusalem in 71 CE. They carried menorahs, sacred trumpets, and other valuables they looted from the temple, now displaying them during Titus’s triumphal entry into Rome.
Whereas Roman generals entered Jerusalem with much fanfare, Jesus did not. Jesus did not conquer anyone or anything so there was nothing to show for any sort of “victory” in his processional. Yet we still refer to this event as Jesus’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. It’s triumphal because Jesus is one step closer to fulfilling his mission on earth despite the many attempts of those who tried to stop him.
The Pharisees are still trying to stop him when they ask Jesus to quiet his disciples. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t think Jesus didn’t deserve such a welcome or they didn’t want Roman authorities to be alarmed by crowds gathering to hail someone else besides the Emperor as “King.” It was probably a bit of both.
Jesus replies: “even if the disciples were silent the stones would shout out.” Here Luke wants us to know that while Jesus may be riding a humble donkey, he is King of the universe in that even all of creation rejoices at his arrival. Probably even more so than most of the people gathered there that day.
We know that this joyful crowd, including most of the disciples, would desert Jesus as he was crucified. Before we judge the people of Jerusalem for being fickle in their faith, we too have to admit that we are just as fickle. There are times when we welcome Jesus into our lives with open arms and times when we, like Peter, deny we ever knew him.
Perhaps people deserted Jesus because they were disappointed in him. Disappointed that he wasn’t the King they were expecting. He wasn’t a great military general such as Titus who would finally overthrow those who exploited and oppressed Israel. Their first clue should’ve been how Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was in stark contrast to Roman Triumphs.
The scene of Palm Sunday is a joyful warning. Joyful because the true King has arrived. It is also a warning because Jesus is not the image of the all-powerful King that comes to mind. We may not expect Jesus to arrive on a golden chariot as some did in Jesus’ day, but we do expect a more impressive resume. What ivy league did you attend? What honors do you have under your belt? What other accomplishments can you share with us, Jesus to show that you’re worthy of our allegiance?
Jesus’ resume includes: befriending lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and calling out hypocrites. He’s not exactly what we think of when it comes to being successful and accomplished and powerful.
As we begin Holy Week a good question to ask ourselves is whose processional will we follow? Will we follow the humble king who rides in on a donkey or the great general who displays the spoils of his victory? Will we be guided by the values of God’s kingdom or the values of earthly kingdoms?
At face value, it seems safer to follow a Roman Triumph as it appears you have the protection of a vast army and an even more vast empire. While it didn’t happen overnight, Rome’s power eventually waned as did its military. All that is left of that once great empire are ruins such as the Arch of Titus. Yet today churches all over the world of all different Christian traditions are still waving palms as they have for centuries. Earthly empires don’t last forever, but the Kingdom of God is eternal.
Are we ready to lead and serve as Jesus did? Are we willing to be a part of how God continues to bring God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven? To do so will come at a cost. There’s a cost because it means going against cultural norms of what and who is successful and powerful. Let’s be honest and admit that this is difficult. But the Christian life was never promised to be an easy one.
We aren’t alone, however, in answering the call to follow Christ. God has given us one another and most importantly he gives us himself. Through Christ’s resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit, God empowers us to carry out what we’ve been called to do. Since we have been freed from sin we are now free to love and serve others more freely. This could look like serving those in need within our community. Listening to, learning from, and helping those who feel oppressed. Speaking out against unjust or corrupt systems. These were the very things Jesus said and did and we’re called to do the same.
We all love scenarios and stories of the weak overpowering the strong. We have a tendency to root for the underdog. St. Peters beating the likes of Kentucky and making it to the Elite 8. I had never heard of St. Peter’s until that happened and I lived in New Jersey for a decade. Our most loved stories involve the underdog coming out on top. A lowly hobbit brings down the evil Sauron from taking over Middle Earth. Four normal kids from London help save Narnia from an eternal winter. Luke Skywalker defeats the evil empire. Harry Potter takes down Voldemort.
The big difference, of course, between these stories and the story of Jesus Christ, is that the story of Jesus is true. Jesus’ lowly entry on a donkey that led to his victory over death gives us hope. Hope in the midst of all that is hard and wrong in the world and ourselves. Hope that we aren’t alone in the midst of all that is hard and wrong in the world. Hope that God continues to bring a kingdom of peace and love despite wars that continue to rage. Hope of the promise that Christ will return again and make all things right. In the meantime, God asks us to be a part of the healing he continues to bring into the world. We can do so by not just waving our palms today, but by following King Jesus wherever he leads us.