The Palm Sunday liturgy is composed of two parts. The first part is the blessing of the palms, followed by a procession. In the second, upon entry into the Church, the Mass commences. What organically ties these two parts together, forming one liturgical action, is the Gospels that are proclaimed within each part.
This year, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is declared. During the proclamation of the Word at Mass, Matthew’s Passion Narrative is read. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem finds its completion in his passion, death, and resurrection. As they form one narrative within Matthew’s Gospel, so they form one liturgical whole on Palm Sunday, a whole that will find its culmination at week’s end – on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
What then is the theological significance of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and his death and resurrection in Jerusalem?
In Matthew’s account, Jesus, riding on an ass, makes his way from Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and up into Jerusalem. Upon entering Jerusalem, the large crowd lay cloaks and palm branches before Jesus and proclaim: “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” Some were amazed and asked: “Who is this?” They were told: “This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The spreading of garments and palms symbolize that the crowd were hailing a new king. (see 2 Kgs. 9:13) The new king is a descendant of the great king, David, the one to whom God promised that his kingdom would last forever. (2 Sam. 7:12-13) The joyful acclamation of “hosanna” means “save us.” (2 Sam. 14:4 and Ps. 118:25). “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” also echoes Psalm 118:26.
Now, who is this new king and savior? None other than Jesus of Nazareth, for he is “the prophet,” that God promised to Moses: “I will raise up for them (the Israelites) a prophet like you from among their brethren. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” (Dt. 18:18)
In re-enacting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Church jubilantly professes all that the crowd proclaimed of him. Jesus is the new David, the one who comes in the name of God himself, and whose kingdom will be unending. Jesus is the Savior, for he is the definitive promised prophet, the very Word of God incarnate.
Although the crowd was joyous in its praise and proclamation of Jesus, yet they did not realize how all that they declared would be accomplished. At week’s end, Jesus would be condemned to death and nailed on a cross. Ironically, what was joyously declared on Palm Sunday is realized on Good Friday, and so we now proceed to Matthew’s Passion Narrative.
We cannot examine the whole of the passion narrative here, but we can observe a couple of salient events within it.
When Jesus was arrested and brought before Pilate, Pilate asked him: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered: “You say so.” Knowing that Jesus was innocent of any crime, Pilate endeavored to release him. He asked the Jewish authorities whether they wanted him to release to them the criminal Barabbas or “Jesus called Christ.” The chief priest and elders induced the crowd to demand Barabbas’s release, and to have Jesus crucified.
Now, the crowd, upon his entry into Jerusalem, had just hailed Jesus as their new king and implicitly acknowledged that he was God’s anointed one, the Christ, the long-promised prophet. How can Jesus, the crucified Christ, be the king of the Jews?
During his agony on the Cross, Jesus was reviled and mocked. “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, and come down from the cross!. . .He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusted God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
Irony permeates this sarcasm and contempt. As the great high priest, Jesus is lovingly offering the perfect sacrifice, his holy and innocent life, to the Father. On the Cross, as the incarnate Son of God, he is the new temple wherein the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins is offered. Thus, he is definitively saving others from sin. Likewise, Jesus will come down from the Cross, not in the manner demanded by the chief priests, but by the Father gloriously raising him from the dead.
Jesus did trust his Father and the Father did want him, so much so that, in raising him from the dead, he became the Lord of heaven and earth. Moreover, through his death and resurrection, Jesus became the king of the Jews and, as such, the Savior of the world. Ironically, again, all for which he was derided and scorned became the means by which Jesus achieved the everlasting Davidic salvific kingdom of God, a kingdom that the crucified and risen Jesus himself now and forever embodies.
The Palm Sunday salutations now become the Easter acclamations. “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” And to whom is jubilation made? “Jesus, the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
So, Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem culminates in his triumphal death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Because of what he accomplished in the earthly Jerusalem, Jesus presently abides in the new Jerusalem. At the end of time, the risen Lord Jesus will descend from the heavenly Jerusalem and wrench us from our graves.
Then, with glad hosannas, we ourselves, from every city and nation, will triumphantly enter the heavenly, new Jerusalem with Jesus of Nazareth from Galilee.
*Image: Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem by Félix Louis Leullier, c. mid-19th century [Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Arras, France]