From early childhood Jesus had been accustomed to making the long journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This, the greatest of Jewish festivals, gave thanks to God for liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and for leading them across the desert towards the land God had promised to give them. “Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the feast as usual,” (Lk. 2.41).
We can picture groups of people from the same neighbourhood making their way up through the hill-country, singing what were known as the ‘Gradual Psalms’ (119-133).(‘ Gradual’ referring to the gradient of the route up towards Jerusalem). We can imagine the increasing excitement and religious fervour as pilgrims converged on Jerusalem from different directions.
Surely, Jesus would often have taken part in this, but the Gospels do tell us that there were times when He went quietly up to Jerusalem for the Passover. During His public ministry He felt the need to insist that those who were impressed by Him should not turn Him into a sensational figure – a popular hero with a large following. This would certainly have aroused the suspicions of the civil authorities who might well have seen Him as a dangerous freedom-fighter.
When joining the Passover Pilgrimage it would have been unthinkable for any individual to make himself the cause for celebration, the focus of interest. Everyone would have thought that on that occasion, more than on any other, that person was taking to Himself honour belonging to God alone.
Jesus had His own hour when He would be ready for precisely that…what the Church celebrates on Palm Sunday. On that particular Passover He did allow His admiring followers to make Him the centre of interest of the pilgrimage. Indeed, He stage-managed it. There is something theatrical about Jesus choosing to be mounted – even though on a humble beast of burden – a donkey…theatrical in that it would have been seen as the fulfilment of one of the prophesies about the Messiah.
“Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Look, your king is approaching, he is vindicated and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9.9).
However, not for Him was it to present Himself as a conquering hero mounted on a noble steed and accompanied by warriors brandishing their swords and screaming their battle cries. The people that surrounded Jesus were waving harmless palm branches and singing sacred chants.
His entry into Jerusalem was wonderful! Exciting! Thrilling! Jesus, for this once, was allowing Himself to be openly acclaimed with the Messianic title of ‘the King who comes in the name of the Lord.’ In so doing He acknowledged that He was all that this crowd made Him out to be. They had got it right!
There was nothing that could have prepared them for the traumatic shock at what happened to Jesus just a few days later. No-one could have blamed them for not foreseeing that the destiny of Jesus would be fulfilled, not thwarted, on a cross, between criminals on Calvary - the destiny of this same King-Messiah of the cheerful procession.
By bringing together in a single liturgy two separate, contrary, contradictory, events – adulation when entering Jerusalem and rejection when being nailed to a cross– the Church confronts us, confuses us, with the Mystery that is Holy Week. We are to enter into the anguish of those who loved Jesus and expected so much of Him – so well expressed by the bewilderment of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
And, you know, there are so many of this age and every other age who can make neither head nor tail of what happened to Jesus during the last few days of His life!
As we celebrate Palm Sunday we are called to identify with those who joyfully welcomed Jesus as the promised Messiah. But as we hear today’s Passion Narrative we must accept Jesus’ understanding of what that role really meant. We must accept Him on His own terms, not ours!