When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on this day called Palm Sunday, the crowds that followed Him knew their Hebrew history. Even the most inactive Jews – not able to keep all the laws for lack of time or interest, or unable to attain the rank of rabbi, knew their Bible. They knew what the sermons of their prophets said about a day when God would take on human flesh and be present in Messiah, “the anointed One,” which in Greek is “Christ.”
The Palm Sunday air was thick with excitement and anticipation. The prophets had given signs. When Messiah comes, the blind will receive their sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and even the dead will be brought back to life. All the things Jesus was seen or reported to have done. Everyone who lived in or around Bethany was abuzz with the latest report: Jesus had called Lazarus out of the grave and back to life!
It was the news that swelled the crowd to pour out of the countryside into the streets of Jerusalem, waving palm branches torn from the trees and marching to the beat of the song, slightly revised from the Book of Psalms:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matt. 21:9)
They who knew their Bible history remembered King David ascending the hill to the temple, to the cheers of the people providing the processional hymn for Israel’s greatest king.It was the sight of the donkey that had them adding:
“Hosanna to the Son of David! –
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
King David had ridden on a donkey; now the sight of Jesus on a donkey was the sign- Now they were getting their king back!
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
At the same time, the Roman authorities and their legions were entering by the opposite gate, the route royalty traveled. Their entrance was staged with pomp and pageantry. The people who represented the power of Rome rode in mounted on horses, the war machine of the day and the ceremonial vehicle for conquering heroes.
Their arrival was timed to happen just as Jews were coming in to celebrate the Passover in numbers that filled houses and streets wall to wall. The power of Rome was there in Governor and legions, to quell any Jewish uprising, and if some of their malcontents staged a revolt, they would be squashed and destroyed.
The astute among the Jews who enjoyed political satire, might have thought:
- “How clever of Jesus to choose to enter Jerusalem on the same animal King David mounted: a donkey, a farm vehicle - when Romans ride on horses!
- “How ingenious of Him to come in such a disguise!”
- “Wait till they see what He’s about to do – to dethrone them, to bring down the wrath of God to pulverize them!”
- “Now, at last, we will have all the power; now those who have made us bow down to them will be forced to bow down and serve us!”
How sad, how tragic, that they didn’t hear what Jesus had said about coming to serve rather than be served, even to forgive one’s persecutors, and “to pay a debt He didn’t owe to cancel a debt we couldn’t pay.” How sad, how tragic, that they didn’t pick up on the question rippling through the crowds in the city,
“Who is this?” (Matt. 21:10)
The question that rings through this day to haunt and captivate us with God’s choice not to rule from above – like earthly monarchs, sitting high on a horse, followed by legions of soldiers, but as God in Christ, coming to rule from below –riding in on a down-to-earth donkey, not as a sign of a new Kind David, entering Jerusalem to overthrow and replace the rulers of the Temple in league with the powers of Rome, but to endure the depths of human suffering and the humiliation of crucifixion intended to bring down God’s Messiah, only to have the world see the Servant-Christ turn the cross into a throne for the God of love, and hear His followers raise the coronation cry on Easter morning:
"Hallelujah. He is Risen."
The answer to the question: “Who is this?” But it will take time, perhaps more time than it took Jesus’ closest friends, perhaps a whole life time, to be captivated with the answer.
The British author Graham Greene was eager to be in the company of the Roman Catholic mystic Padre Pio, who resided in an Italian monastery, (Incidentally, one of his shrines is here in Pennsylvania, off Route 100, near Bally.) Greene had to wait two and a half years for a 15-minute appointment with a man who was considered to be “a living saint” whose body was marked with the wounds of Christ.
On the day Greene was due to meet with the mystic, he first attended a mass where Padre Pio officiated. Their appointment was to begin immediately after the mass. Instead, Greene left the church, headed for the airport and flew directly back to London. When asked why he broke the appointment he had waited two and a half years to have, Greene said, “I was not ready for the manner in which that man could change my life.” (Adapted from the Rev. Marek Zabriskie, Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fort Washington, PA)
“Who is he?”
The answer waits to make its mark on us, to change us, as it did Padre Pio, and to move us to exclaim as the disciple Thomas did,
“My Lord and my God!”
This week that begins with a parade draws us into following a Man on a donkey and in His company find that when asking “Who is he?” we are changed as we pursue the answer, so that by Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning we might say, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”