Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest – Matthew 21:9
THE story of Christ’s Passion is harrowing. First, he is scourged – that is, flogged to within an inch of his life. The scourge was a short whip to which iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep’s bones were tied. Jesus was stripped naked and tied to a post and his back and his legs were flogged by two soldiers called, in a special name for the job, lictors. The lacerations went deep into the skeletal muscles and produced palpitating ribbons of bleeding flesh. At this point the lictors mocked him, their words set to a ceremonial chant.
But this pathetic, horrific scene was preceded by a pastoral interlude and something like a joke. Jesus had been staying all week at Bethany from where he walked with two of his disciples to the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. Here he orders them:
Go ye into the village over against you and straightway ye shall find an ass tied and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them unto me. – Matthew 21:2
St Matthew adds:
All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet saying, ‘Tell ye the daughter of Sion, behold thy King cometh unto thee meek and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.’
So, it looks as if Jesus was riding upon two donkeys! But it’s not as daft as it looks. Zechariah, the prophet – as with all the Old Testament prophets – being quoted here by St Matthew, couched his prophecies in verse, and one of the most potent devices in Hebrew literary style was parallelism – say it and say it again.
Palm Sunday was – to put it vulgarly – the high point of Jesus’s popularity. The crowds who had been listening to him all week came out to show their support: and more than their support, their affection as his donkey passes by:
Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! – Matthew 21:9
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
And if you listen to the Benedictus in Mozart’s Coronation Mass K317, you will hear a little donkey tune. Here Wolfgang orchestrates Christ’s procession into the City of Jerusalem. (Try this version with soloist Teresa Stich-Randall).
They strew palm fronds before him as he passes by.
Now, in the gospel narrative, events and what they symbolise are not two things but one. Meanings are incarnated in objects and actions, and so what is meant does not – as in some tedious theology lecture – have to be explained. The objects themselves are adequate symbols. This is to say that all those present – and later all those who read the gospel account – knew very well what all these things signified.
The palms were signs of homage to a king. Traditionally the donkey was ridden by the king triumphant in battle, now humbling himself and declaring peace to his people. How many people? Well, the occasion was the Feast of the Passover when the crowds were multitudinous. Josephus writes of one such occasion when there were more than two million present. An exaggeration, no doubt, but you get the picture.
Jesus entered Jerusalem through the Golden Gate in the north section of the old east wall. This was also called the Gate of Mercy, Sha’ar Harakhmim. This was of supreme significance and everyone present knew why. That gate was the one which, according to hundreds of years’ tradition, would be entered by the Messiah, the Chosen One of God, come to exercise judgement. And once again – one might almost say, as ever – the incident is paradoxical: for the one who comes to judge will, in five days’ time, himself be tried, found guilty on trumped-up charges, tortured and put to death.
Thus, this Jesus who enters by the Gate of Mercy himself receives no mercy. The point is that this suffering which God in Christ takes upon himself is what brings mercy to us.
The fact that it is the Passover is yet another incarnated symbol. The Passover was the feast on which the lambs were sacrificed, and God had mercy on the people of Israel. Here Jesus is the lamb, the sacrificial Lamb of God, who is killed for our sake:
Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis
O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
(I swear, if you listen to Stich-Randall singing this – it comes immediately after the Benedictus in the K317– you will melt).
So, in this story of our redemption the symbols pile up on all sides and get jumbled up together in a sort of noisy rush. Here they all are: the King in triumph, arriving with meekness, judgement, blood, torture, death, weeping, sacrifice and mercy. And this profusion – this confusion – doesn’t matter: it is the panoply and the whole symphony of our salvation, all sounding together.
The redemption of the world was not all neat and tidy. It was wrought out of chaos and cacophony. I will end, for what it’s worth, with my own two-penn’orth of this noisy glory:
This season is all death,
The most real thing sin,
With wages in advance
And time to spend them in.
The willow tree is angered by the wind,
The church bell blown off key:
And Christ’s ride to Calvary.
God is infinitely bored
By this procession
Of seasonal necessities;
But he makes no digression.
He cannot do otherwise
For his property is extreme:
To be the bloody Eternal God
With a passion to redeem.