In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday is seen as the first step on the final path of Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry – steps that would lead him to the Temple, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the Cross and finally to Resurrection. The event is reported in all four gospels and is described as the first time in his ministry that Jesus, the itinerant preacher, entered Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith. He had initially built up a following in Galilee, his home district, and his influence had steadily grown despite, or perhaps because of, his ongoing criticism of the official religious leadership. His entrance into the city in so public a manner was an overt challenge to that leadership and set in motion all the events that followed. Whether or not any or all of this took place exactly as reported is beside the point. In matters of religion, as with most serious events in human life, the significance of the event is more important than the details.
In Jewish religious tradition, Jesus arriving riding on a donkey was significant in that it invoked the prophecy from the prophet Zechariah, "See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey". The combination of arrogance and humility in this act is worth looking at. Riding in at the head of a procession of cheering supporters was a dramatic statement that “I am important” and a clear challenge to the existing order. The fact that the mount was a beast of labor and servitude, as opposed to a horse, a beast of combat and military authority, sends a message that is central to the Christian Idea: your “King” is one of you.
In the Roman world, a victorious general would enter Rome the head of his army in a horse drawn chariot, in an orchestrated display to the public of the power of the existing order. The irony of this Passover in Jerusalem was that the Jewish people were celebrating their deliverance by God from oppression in a situation that found them once again under the control of an oppressive power, with no Moses in sight. There is little doubt that to many of Jesus’ followers, he was seen as the one who would drive out their most recent political oppressor along with the religious leaders who were cooperating with them. The poor, the vast majority of the population, paid taxes to both Caesar and the Temple. How times have changed.
The twist, or, given its massive historical impact, the “swerve” in the Christian message is that the “King” did not oppose his enemies by force of arms or thunderbolts from heaven, as in all previous mythologies, Jewish or Roman, but by his total and utter humiliation and surrender – not by the sword but by the cross. The only crown he would win was a crown of thorns.
Palm Sunday sets that dynamic in motion. Its implications continue to be celebrated, revered and for the most part misunderstood. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was riding not to a celebration but to his death. The burning of today’s palms to be used as next Ash Wednesday’s ashes acknowledges this. Given the continuing similarities between his world and ours, It’s not a message we can afford to miss.