A Sunday in Nisan

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It was the month of Nisan. The Book of Exodus ordered that in this month the Paschal Lamb was to be selected, and four days later was to be taken to the place where it was to be sacrificed. On Palm Sunday, the Lamb was chosen by popular acclaim in Jerusalem; on Good Friday He was sacrificed.

His last Sabbath Our Lord spent in Bethany with Lazarus and his sisters. News was now circulated that Our Lord was coming into Jerusalem. In preparation for His entrance, He sent two of His disciples into the village, where they were told they would find a colt tethered, on which no man had ridden. They were to untie it and bring it to Him. “And if anybody asks you, Why are you untying it? This must be your answer, The Lord hath need of it.” (Lk 19:31)

Perhaps no greater paradox was ever written than this – on the one hand the sovereignty of the Lord, and on the other His “need.” This combination of Divinity and dependence, of possession and poverty was the consequence of the Word becoming flesh. Truly, He who was rich became poor for our sakes, that we might be rich. He borrowed a boat from a fisherman from which to preach; He borrowed barley loaves and fishes from a boy to feed the multitude; He borrowed a grave from which He would rise; and now He borrowed an ass on which to enter Jerusalem. Sometimes God pre-empts and requisitions the things of man, as if to remind him that everything is a gift from Him. It is sufficient for those who know Him to hear: “The Lord hath need of it.”

As He approached the city, a “great multitude” came to meet Him; among them were not only the citizens but also those who had come up for the feast and, of course, the Pharisees. The Roman authorities also were on the alert during great feasts lest there be an insurrection. On all previous occasions, Our Lord rejected the false enthusiasm of the people, fled the spotlight of publicity, and avoided anything that savored of display.

At one time: “He strictly forbade them to tell any man That He, Jesus, was the Christ.” (Mt. 16:20)

When He raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead: “He laid a strict charge on them, To let nobody hear of this.” (Mk 5:43)

After revealing the glory of His Divinity in the Transfiguration: “He warned them not to tell anyone what they had seen, Until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mk. 9:8)

When the multitudes, after the miracle of the loaves, sought to make Him King: “He withdrew on to the hillside all alone.” (Jn 6:15)

When His relatives asked Him to go to Jerusalem and publicly astound the festival with miracles, He said: “My Hour is not yet come.” (Jn. 7:6)

But the entrance into Jerusalem was so public, that even the Pharisees said: “Look, the whole world has turned aside to follow Him.” (Jn. 12:19)

“Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, 1846 [Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris]

“Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, 1846 [Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris]

All this was in opposition to His usual manner. Before He dampened all their enthusiasms; now He kindled them. Why?

Because His “Hour” had come. It was time now for Him to make the last public affirmation of His claims. He knew it would lead to Calvary, and His Ascension and the establishment of His Kingdom on earth. Once He acknowledged their praise, then there were only two courses open to the city: confess Him as did Peter, or else crucify. Either He was their King, or else they would have no king but Caesar. No Galilean seacoast or mountaintop, but the royal city on the Passover was the best time to make His last proclamation.

He drew attention to His Kingship in two ways, first by the fulfillment of a prophecy familiar to the people, and second by the tributes of Divinity which He accepted as His own.

Matthew explicitly states that the solemn procession was to fulfill the prophecy made by Zacharias years before: “Tell the daughter of Sion, Behold Thy King is coming to Thee, Humbly riding on an ass.” (Mt. 21:5) The prophecy came from God through a prophet, and now God Himself was bringing it to fulfillment.

The prophecy of Zacharias was meant to contrast the majesty and the humility of the Savior. As one looks at the ancient sculptured slabs of Assyria and Babylon, the murals of Egypt, the tombs of the Persians, and the scrolls of the Roman columns, one is struck by the majesty of kings riding in triumph on horses or in chariots, and sometimes over the prostrate bodies of their foes. In contrast to this, here is One Who comes triumphant upon an ass.

How Pilate, if he was looking out of his fortress that Sunday, must have been amused by the ridiculous spectacle of a man being proclaimed as a King, and yet seated on the beast that was the symbol of the outcast – a fitting vehicle for one riding into the jaws of death! If He had entered into the city with regal pomp in the manner of conquerors, He would have given occasion to believe that He was a political Messias. But the circumstance He chose validated His claim that His Kingdom was not of this world. There is no suggestion that this pauper King was a rival of Caesar.

The acclaim of the people was another acknowledgment of His Divinity. Many took off their garments and spread them before Him; others cut down boughs from the olive trees and palm branches and strewed them on the way. The Apocalypse speaks of a great multitude standing before the Throne of the Lamb with palms of victory in their hands. Here the palms, so often used throughout their history to signify victory, as when Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem, witnessed to His victory – even before He was momentarily vanquished.

Then taking verses from the great Hillel which referred to the Messias, the multitudes followed Him, shouting: “Blessed is the King Who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven; glory above.” (Lk. 19:38) Admitting now that He was the One sent by God, they practically repeated the song of the angels of Bethlehem, for the peace He brought was the reconciliation of earth and heaven. Repeated, too, is the salutation the Wise Men gave Him at the crib: “the King of Israel.”

A new chant was taken up as they cried out: “Hosanna for the Son of David; Hosanna in heaven above.” (Mt. 21:9)

“King of Israel.” (Jn. 12:13)

He was the promised Prince of David’s line; the One Who came with a Divine Mission. Hosanna, which was originally a prayer, was now a triumphant welcome to a Savior King. Not wholly understanding why He was sent, nor the kind of peace He would bring, they nevertheless confessed that He was Divine. The only ones who did not share in their acclaim were the Pharisees: “Some of the Pharisees who were among the multitude Said to Him: Master, rebuke Thy disciples.” (Lk. 19:39) It was unusual that they should have appealed to Our Lord, since they were disgusted with Him for having accepted homage from the crowds. With awful majesty, Our Lord retorted: “I tell you, if they should keep silence, The stones will cry out instead.” (Lk. 19:40)

If men were silent, nature itself would cry out and proclaim His Divinity. Stones are hard, but if they would cry out, then how much harder must be the hearts of men who would not recognize God’s mercy before them. If the disciples were silent, enemies would have nothing to gain, for mountains and seas would become vocal.

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About Fulton J. Sheen

Fulton John Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois on May 8, 1895. He attended Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota and was ordained in 1919. After further studies at Catholic University, he earned a doctorate in philosophy at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven. In 1930 Sheen began a Sunday night radio show, “The Catholic Hour, and in 1951 then Bishop Sheen launched “Life Is Worth Living,” which became one of America’s top-rated TV shows and won him an Emmy in 1952. He was elevated to archbishop by Pope Paul VI in 1969. He died on December 9, 1979, and is buried in the crypt of St. Patrick's Cathedral. He was declared a Venerable Servant of God by Pope Benedict XVI on July 28th 2012.

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