Matthew 21:1-11 (NIV)
Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King
1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
This somewhat familiar story which is read every Palm Sunday may also jar with our sensibilities, in that the events which unfold do not seem ‘normal’, whatever normal may be. There is so much symbolism and rich, almost unusual, imagery in how all four Gospels present this very significant moment. It is also interesting to note that all four of the Gospels describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before Passover, (albeit with different levels of emphasis on different details), as this does not happen with every story.
This event as it unfolds is clearly pivotal, and creates a prophetic frame not only for what is to come, but also for the sacred past. Palm branches and colts, Jerusalem’s gates and exclamations of praise from the Psalms all register in Israel’s collective imagination and provide points of recognition from the depths of Israel’s memory.
If we are to paint the backdrop of this scene, we will remember that this is the last spring of Jesus’ life. Approximately 33 Passovers – this will be His last. His first Passover we are told about in the text records Jesus as being 12 years old and debating with the teachers in the Temple while His parents search frantically for His whereabouts. No doubt every year of His life He has eaten the unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs with Passover lamb – this year He is the Passover Lamb.
There are many dimensions to this symbolically and textually rich passage and many avenues for discussion. Let us consider three.
Hoshi-ana – This familiar term (in English we say ‘Hosanna’ coming from the Greek/Latin translations) found in the Psalms is made up of two Hebrew words – ‘Help/save us’ and ‘please/now’. It shares the same root with Jesus’ own name (Yeshua, meaning ‘salvation’). With overtones of deliverance and rescue, they are biblical words which can be uttered across all centuries and dimensions.
This phrase also highlights something – salvation is not just an individual pursuit, there is an inherent collective element in the ‘us’. Israel’s salvation history always involves the well-being of the whole (think of the Lost Sheep/Lost Coin/Lost Son parables). The salvation/rescue of one affects the salvation/rescue of all.
Sacred Time – A second point is the timeframe on which this day is located. John’s Gospel gives us a specific timeline – 5/6 days before Passover was to begin. This places the ‘triumphal entry’ on the 10th of Nisan. Nisan was and is the month during which the festival of Passover, and therefore the resurrection, occurs. According to the Book of Exodus, and the practice that continues in Jewish communities until this very day, Passover begins on the 15th day of this month when the moon is full. It begins not quite at sundown like many holidays, but according to the text at twilight or literally ‘between the evenings’ (Ex 12:6) .
In biblical times the 10th of the month, the day on which Jesus was recognised and welcomed into Jerusalem, was the day on which the Passover lamb was selected (Ex 12:3). Lamb Selection Day. His entrance into Jerusalem in the days preceding Passover/His crucifixion is not coincidental. Some sources claim that Bethphage, the village on the Mt. of Olives where they stop to talk about the colt, is the place from where the Passover lambs were led up to the Temple. This day would have been crazy with a cacophony of sounds and smells, as thousands of pilgrims were entering the city, (according to Josephus the first century Jewish historian), and getting ready for the big day.
Two Resurrection Stories – Geographically in the text we are positioned between two stories of resurrection. The account of the Triumphal Entry as it is presented in John in particular, places Jesus the day before in Bethany with His friend Lazarus. Lazarus and Bethany give both those who are in the text and those who are reading the text hope through resurrection. Between Bethany and Jerusalem we are walking between the restored life of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, and the impending death and resurrection of the Passover Lamb. This is surely a liminal space if ever there was one, a transitional moment which marks the threshold of an encounter between heaven and earth like no other. There are multiple skeins of connection underneath all that is unfolding as the events of Palm Sunday take place.
This Palm Sunday, as we wave our own palms and welcome the King, let our own hearts become rooted in sacred time, a time that transcends the boundaries of the linear and allows us to connect into that which is beyond ourselves. Connection has probably never felt so important, as we learn to navigate what it means to be a faith community with so much rapid change unfolding through Brexit, the global pandemic and the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Let our own hearts cry out for the salvation and well-being of the whole. Let our hearts find themselves travelling toward the resurrection, propelled by the testimonies of those who have gone before and mapped out by the songs of praise which emerge from the mouths of those who recognise the Lamb.