All four Gospels report the arrival of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem, at the festival of Passover (Pesach), one of the three great Jewish festivals. Jesus enters the city along with countless other pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel.
All four Gospels report this scene. This year, as we are in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary, we hear the account offered in the orderly account of the things coming to fulfilment amongst us (Luke 19;28-40). As we hear this account, we can well imagine that he air was filled with the noisy, bustling sounds of these pilgrims, excited with anticipation as they make their way to offer their sacrifices to the Lord God, residing in the Holy of Holies, the inner court of the Temple.
Passover was a central religious celebration. Passover, the festival of unleavened bread, recalled the hurried departure of the people, long ago, from captivity in Egypt (Exodus 13). This was the foundational myth at the heart of Jewish identity: a story of the liberating actions of God, in the face of the military might of the Egyptians, the liberation of the people from their time of enforced slavery, as they set out, across the wilderness, to the land they had been promised (Exodus 14–17 and beyond).
Passover was also a thoroughly politicised procession of pilgrims, wending their way to the holy city, the city of peace. At Passover, lambs were roasted and eaten as a sign of the liberation of the people; bitter herbs were sprinkled eaten as a reminder of the bitterness of the slavery that they were escaping. Passover celebrated the intervention of God into the social and political situation of those ancient Israelites. So, the Passover pilgrims celebrate this ancient political action of God as the fundamental paradigm for what their faith means for them: “Yes, God is for us! Yes, God will save us!”
Passover was therefore a time of high alert for the Roman soldiers, looking out from the Antonia Fortress next to the temple, watching with care every move that was taking place in the approaches to the city. They knew, from many years’ experience, that the city swelled with the influx of pilgrims each year at this time, as the pilgrims made their way towards Jerusalem. They knew of the potential for dispute and conflict that simmered underneath the crowds. They knew that the pilgrims, would be attuned to the charged political consequences of this festival.
So the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee entered the city. Luke reports that he had long been preaching the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43; 8:1; 9:11), a kingdom for the poor and hungry (6:20–21), a kingdom that was coming soon (9:27) and was even in their midst (9:2; 10:9, 11; 11:20; 17:20–21).
This kingdom would be marked by God’s justice (13:28-30); those on the edge or cast out of society would be welcomed into the kingdom (14:13, 22). Jesus came into the city as the king, bringing peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven (19:38). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.
Contemporary re-enactments of this scene, taking place every year in worship services around the globe, depict it as a time of unbridled joy. That is faithful to the original scene–it was a time of high jubilation, as the people of Israel remembered their history. Children are often involved in re-enacting the “procession of palms”, walking alongside adults, waving their carefully-cut palm branches in the air. In churches with a commitment to high liturgy, those palm branches are carefully collected and stored for the following year, when they are burned to provide the ashes for the next Ash Wednesday service.
Some brave worship leaders even recruit animals to take part in the procession. To the joyful exuberance of the children, they may well add an element of unplanned chaos to the event! At any rate, there is often mention made of the striking juxtaposition of the high joy of Palm Sunday, to the sombre scene of the last meal on Maundy Thursday, and the devastating grief of the story retold on Good Friday. All of which is fair, and good.
What is perhaps not often addressed, either in the Liturgy of the Palms, or in the homilies and sermons on the story, is the deep sense of political intention that is embedded within the storyline. A number of elements in the story reflect this political dimension: the shouts of the crowd, the waving of branches (palm branches are specifically mentioned only in John’s account), the laying of cloaks on the ground, the choice of the animal on which Jesus rides: all of these would have had clear political resonances to the Jewish crowd (and perhaps would have been known to the commanders of the Roman soldiers).
I have written a series of blogs that canvass these aspects, which can be read as follows: