How good it was to walk in procession this morning, to see the donkey, to see all these palm fronds. They are palms of victory. On this Palm Sunday we re-enact Jesus’ triumphant procession into Jerusalem: all the people gather on the Mount of Olives, lifting high their palms and spreading their cloaks on the ground – a moving scene.
As the very ancient anthem has it:
“The children of the Hebrews,
carrying palms and olive branches
went forth to meet the Lord
crying out and saying,
‘hosanna in the highest!’”
(Pueri Hebraeorum in the New English Hymnal, no.508)
In medieval England on this day the people made a long procession with palms and flowers around the church. In the churchyard they met the blessed sacrament, which the clergy carried under a canopy and with torches. All the people lay flat on the earth, and kissed the ground—a fond account, perhaps (New Catholic Encyclopedia, “Palm Sunday”) Still, they greeted their Lord with great joy and, I think, a great sense of human solidarity.
May we also go to greet our Lord, trying to see Jesus in our heart and mind as he enters into Jerusalem on a donkey.
On that day he does not come riding on a warhorse or in a great chariot; he does not come with proud and haughty looks, or with an army—like the kings of the earth. No, he comes as a humble man on a donkey, a man for the people. And yet he too is a king, a humble king. He it was who, we hear, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7)
Jesus seems to fulfill the prophesy of Zechariah:
“Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the youngling of a donkey. He will cut of the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech 9)
Many people had hoped for a great leader to redeem Israel. But few had hoped for a humble king. Many expected one who would issue like a flash of fire. As the scriptures had it, “Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come into his Temple. … Who can endure the day of his coming? He will refine like a fire”. (Mal 3:1). But they did not expect a king riding on a donkey. Most didn’t notice Jesus that day. Only a few scattered poor, only the poor seers and wise ones in their threaded clothes. Nor did he appear in the Temple as a terrible and fiery apparition, but as a poor man shouting about injustice—“my house will be a house of prayer for all people!” He appeared to turn the tables on the profiteers. Who could have expected this?
Only perhaps those little ones on the roadside, the long-suffering ones, waving palms. Perhaps only they foresaw that one like them would “command peace to the nations;” he would conquer by the force of non-violence. So they swish their palms and strew them on the pavement. His is the victory, his the triumph.
The humble king rides into Jerusalem and, as we know well, he goes to empty himself still further—to sound the depths of suffering. He goes a martyr.
Yet Jesus’ trial and execution is not some humiliating defeat. No, in the face of power, he remains the king “who commands peace to the nations”. He remains the man of non-violence. He does not resist the violence of his trial: before Pilate he barely speaks, refusing to justify himself. He does not resist the violence of the lash or the cross. This is how he testifies against the powers of the world.
None of them perceive who he is. They themselves bear false witness, sending him down a criminal. They satisfy themselves that peace and good order will endure a while longer. But they do not perceive that he is working the inner transformation of society itself.
He goes to reveal the murderous heart of society itself, for all who care to see. He goes to reveal the murderous working and potential even of lawful authority. He goes as a martyr—a scapegoat, who bears the sins of the world. His dying reveals a new way into God, the way of non-violence, the way of humanity. Therefore he overcomes the powers of the world.
That is what we commemorate this Holy Week.
And as Jesus enters Jerusalem, joy does not desert us. We lift high our palms, singing of the humble king, who commands peace to the nations—the man of peace and non-violence, who stops the mouths of the strong. It is a rumour that persists even many centuries later—even in our world, another world, a technological world, a world of big capital and globalisation. At the heart of it all there is still a humble king, riding on a donkey. In his lowliness he will overthrow the age.
May this day be for us a great day of solidarity with each other and a day of rejoicing, as together we go to greet our Lord. Amen.