If we were to look at S. Matthew’s entrance gospel for Palm Sunday – the one that is read before the procession – then you would see a few fascinating things. First of all, of course, everything seems to be starting off so well!
Hosanna to the Son of David. A triumphant entry into Jerusalem. People shouting, palms waving, everyone saluting Jesus. What can go wrong?
And also, incidentally as a bit of background, this graphic picture deliberately references the Roman ‘Triumph’.
This is when a conquering general or Emperor entered Rome in his chariot with his troops behind him (a privilege rarely given by the Senate for obvious reasons: you don’t want several thousand hungry soldiers kicking their heels in the capital city and getting restless).
But there are very obvious and glaring differences. First Jesus comes not in a chariot. Not on a white steed. Not even on a horse – but a donkey. A donkey! In a hymn I once wrote for Palm Sunday, I deliberately describe it as a common or garden ‘working animal’:
Because it’s a fact that Christ is King in quite another sense to a Roman Emperor. He came in triumph as a divine Saviour, a healer, Prophet, Priest, yes, but not of this world, of no account, of no worldly position or importance. Not as one of them – but as one of us. And most especially of the poor, the anawim.
Through the dusty back streets he came with a lot of Poverty-stricken peasants cheering him on. Anyone of class or status would have turned away, shut the widows or, more likely, sent a servant to the Temple authorities or the Roman occupation to complain about the riff raff on the streets.
But – as the hymn goes on – that is what this entry into Jerusalem, this calm before the storm of arrest and crucifixion, is all about. And we also recall that at a Roman triumph procession, in the chariot of the one in whose honour it was held, was a slave. A slave who keeps on reminding the Victor that he is not a god but only a mere mortal”.
That thought is in Jesus mind too. His human life is in mortal peril. In the next two verses of the hymn I try to sum up what is happening in theological terms. Of what this entry into Jerusalem means in the context of Jewish history, in the unique life and teaching of Jesus and how we should “read” this event in the story of Christ’s passion which starts Holy Week, the climax of the church’s year.