Messianic Prophecy and the Meaning of Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday. Christians worldwide will commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a spring day sometime during the first half of what we have come to refer to as the first century of the Common Era. Much can be said here about the social, political, and historical context of what the Gospel accounts portray as a momentous (if ironically so) event. I propose a reading of this story* for which one particular element of the sociopolitical context is especially relevant: Jesus’ “triumphal” entry was not the only procession into Jerusalem that day.

From the east side of the city, hailing from the peasant village of Nazareth, a healer and holy man called Jesus, accompanied and celebrated by his followers of impoverished rural peasants, out-of-work fishermen, politically and economically marginalized and socially outcast, made his entry (his first and only such visit according to Mark) into Jerusalem. Through the western gate, traveling at the head of an imperial cavalcade and a column of legions of soldiers, entered Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria. One procession proclaimed the Kingdom of God on earth; the other, the unmatched, violent power of Empire, of a civilized sociopolitical order imposed by the sword on the benighted peoples of the world with a thoroughness and brutality not felt to this point in human history. The festival that brought these two diametrically opposed processions face to face at the seat of the Jewish temple was Passover, the celebration of Israel’s liberation from an earlier empire.

The spectacle that attended the Procurator’s entrance into the city—footsoldiers and cavalry, armor and weapons, banners and emblems—would have been a sobering, intimidating demonstration of raw imperial power and a visually poignant extension of the theology of Caesar’s Empire. A marble stele in a temple built for and dedicated to the Emperor Augustus and his Empire bears the following inscription:

Whereas Providence…[has] adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus…and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in] order…with the result that the birthday of our God [Augustus] signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…

The mighty Emperor, the Son of God, was believed to have ushered in a new era of world peace, of a kind not unfamiliar to us two millennia later: peace through strength.

Jesus’ counterprocession, staged in advance with careful and secretive planning, culminated in his entrance into the city gate, riding on a colt, “the foal of an ass” (Mark 11:7; Matt 21:5). For this demonstration, Jesus (and his chroniclers) drew on powerful imagery from the writings of the Hebrew prophet Zechariah. Marks account (written earlier) alludes to the fulfillment of the prophetic text. Matthew is more to the point, quoting the relevant passage verbatim (see verse 5; compare Zech 9:9). Zechariah prophesies the coming of a king, and in the verses that immediately follow, tells Israel what kind of king he will be:

And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10).

Israel’s messianic king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land; a Prince of Peace, the starkest possible contrast to the procession headed by Pilate. The imagery and the prearranged timing bespeak a deliberate commentary upon and lampooning of the decadent array of ostensibly divine authority, arrogated through the most awesome and terrifying means, masquerading on the other side of the city. It was also a powerful message to His disciples, who accepted His identity as Messiah, but were still partially blinded to the meaning of Jesus’ messianic practice and its implications for Israel’s political future.

For centuries since, followers of Jesus have been subject to the same confusion, the same complicated and difficult pulling in the opposing directions embodied in the processions of that first Palm Sunday: the seduction of worldly power derived from the ordered, unmatched violence—the peace through strength—of which Roman rule was exemplary; and the uncompromised commitment demanded from disciples, culminating even in the possibility of a fate for which Jesus, by absorbing with His body the violence that underpinned collaboration with Roman occupation, stood as the Great Exemplar. The former promised a kind of immortality—the legacy of the great men of the world, etched into monuments of stone. The latter holds out a wholly different kind of immortality—the promise that death at the hands of the wicked is not an end, that resurrection will defeat and banish it.

For us this Palm Sunday, in a world where the demands Christian discipleship and the requirements of empire-sustaining cause many to stumble, we must ask ourselves the question:

To which procession do we belong?

*My interpretation here draws important insights from J. D. Crossan and Marcus Borg’s analysis of the Markan account

Comments

  1. Wonderful comparison, Brad – and I love the final question.

  2. Aaahhh-zymandias.
    well done. Though I’m well aware of the textual issues surrounding the Isaian suffering servant, I’m still generally floored by the phrase, popularized in hymn, that Christ had “no apparent beauty that man should him desire.”

  3. Thank you Brad. I pray to be standing in the soft dust, laying down my garments and fronds for my Savior.

  4. Excellent Brad. I hope we can all remember the contrast between the Kingdoms of the World and that of God you illustrate so well.

  5. Good work. I think your reading of the Roman Empire and the pax Romana might be a little off but the details there might get in the way of the pathos in your essay so it’s cool. Can’t say more at the moment because it’s hard to comment from my blackberry.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    A beautiful little essay. When I first read it I wondered how you would know that Pilate was coming to the City at the same time, but then I recalled that he didn’t actually live there, but came on certain occasions (such as Passover) to make a show of force and keep the peace.

    One thing I’ve noticed about the Nacle is that there is a lot of sentiment for celebrating Holy Week among its participants that doesn’t seem to exist among more mainstream Mormon religious culture. (How many people at Church today will even be aware that it is Palm Sunday?) This is a feeling that I share, and so I greatly appreciate it when people post on these subjects, such as you and Kristine have done. I greatly appreciate all such posts.

    (One small correction of fact: although Pilate has long traditionally been thought to be Procurator, especially since Tacitus uses that title for him, we now know that that title was anachronistic to Judea prior to 44 C.E.; Pilate’s actual title was Prefect, a point confirmed by the Pilate Stone discovered in 1961.)

  7. Brad,
    A splendid sermon. It really is a choice between God and Mammon, isn’t it? Too bad most of us try to serve both, which is why the kingdom of God — in its fullness — still isn’t here. Something for Christians to ponder this week: we abandoned the Christ for fear of Rome.

  8. Thomas Parkin says:

    “It really is a choice between God and Mammon, isn’t it? ”

    Amen.

    ~

  9. Or,
    “we abandoned the Christ for fear love of Rome”

  10. Thanks to Brad and Kristine.

    Your observation, Kevin,of a longing for more recognition of Holy Week, is, I think, correct. I’m not the only Mormon at St. James Cathedral in downtown Seattle on Good Friday. I hope to see more of you there. Their 3 hour service from 12-3 is often (not always) outstanding for sermons and music and easy to come in and out of. Lots of downtown workers spend lunch hour at the service. This year’s speaker has an impressive resume. And they are lovingly welcoming to non-Catholics. This year I’ll catch the last half. It always focuses me on the gravity and beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and makes the entire weekend more meaningful. Also, I love being among other Christians and contemplating what unites rather than divides us.

  11. joshua madson says:

    where is a good place to go in the salt lake area?

  12. Peter LLC says:

    Great post. I’m not sure I follow you on the Mammon thing, Ronan.

    Anyway, my MacBook Air is running low on juice, so I’ll have to reserve further comment till I find a Starbucks.

  13. Yeah, your MacBook and Fowles’s Blackberry!

  14. Anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area? Come to the Good Friday concert at Menlo Park Stake — an annual event. This year features substantial portions of the first half of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

  15. Antonio Parr says:

    If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things
    13th Article of Faith

    Keep everything that you’ve got that’s good and true, which is much. Let us add to what you already have — what we consider to be the fullness of the faith, including much more information about Jesus.”
    Neil Maxwell to Hugh Hewitt in Searching for God in America.

    In light of the above, why is it that we don’t celebrate Palm Sunday or Holy Week?!? Why is that we have to seek out the worship services of other Christian denominations in order to share in the fellowship of communal acknowledgement of these absolutely crucial events? I remain absolutely bewildered over this, and mourn the opportunities that we are squandering by a “business as usual” approach to the events surrounding the atonement. (The Book of Mormon prophets — especially Nephi — would be aghast over our casual approach to the Easter season.)

  16. JA Benson says:

    Lovely Brad. Just the sermon I craved today, but did not receive except with the ‘nacle.

    Ditto #15 Antonio Parr

  17. joshua madson, the Cathedral of the Madeleine downtown (331 E. South Temple) is beautiful, but you will need to get there early for Holy Week services. Links are allowed, right? http://www.saltlakecathedral.org

  18. 6, 10 & 15: Here! Here!

    I felt like I was the only one. Today, my children and I attended a church of the faith I grew up in for this exact reason. We will go again on Easter. It’s both good to know I’m not the only one and sad too.

    Brad’s post is the spiritual feast such an ocassion warrants, and I hope somebody received something like it in their ward, but in the last 17 years, all I’ve seen is “Please pass the Spam and Potato Pearls” week after week, regardless.

  19. Nate McConkie says:

    Great thought! Thanks Brad.

  20. Antonio Parr says:

    Out of more than mild curiousity, has anyone ever heard a credible explanation for the LDS practice of breaking ranks with our non-LDS Christian brothers and sisters when it comes to the acknowledgement of “Holy Week”? Why no references to Palm Sunday? Why no commemoration of Holy Thursday (especially given the importance that Latter-Day Saints place on the Sacrament and Gesthemane)? Why is Good Friday — the day of our Lord’s death — not marked with solemn observance? And why do some LDS congregations at times ignore Easter Sunday altogether?

    We are such a missionary-minded Church — have we ever pondered the negative impact that this neglect of Holy Week has upon Christian friends who may be considering joining our Church? How far can we go with a message of “come join us, the one and only true church of Christ, but be prepared to leave behind Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and, depending on your congregation, Easter Sunday”?

    In my humble (but very passionate!) opinion, we are shooting ourselves in the foot with this one.

  21. Antonio,
    I think it’s culture-historical. I was just reading yesterday that the English Reformation banned “Roman Catholic” holidays such as Palm Sunday. The Church of England has only recovered these observances in the last century or so. I imagine the dour Protestant well from which Mormonism sprang was similarly averse to such formal observances.

  22. Antonio Parr says:

    Ronan —

    Thanks for the perspective, which appears to answer my question.

    Historical framework notwithstanding, I still fail to see how we are diminished in any way as a people by setting aside time each year to honor certain key events in Christ’s life, just as we do for Pioneer Day; milestone events in the life of Joseph Smith; etc.

    The fact that the events of Holy Week are not unique to Latter-Day Saints should not make them any less valued. I would love to have back-to-back Sacrament meetings each Easter season (i.e., Palm Sunday and Easter) that focus exclusively on the passion of Christ and His infinite atonement. Such an approach to worship would be in fulfillment of 2 Ne. 25:26, which admonishes us to talk of Christ and rejoice in Christ, and teach our children that He is the source of their salvation.

    It seems like such a simple (and correct) step to take.

  23. 19 years ago I was living in So. America when my husband of not even 4 months came in with giant palm fronds. Kids were selling them on street corners. I was aghast and felt they were akin to idolatrous worship. It’s funny how we are taught/led to shun religious “props” to such an extent that I actually feared a palm frond in my house on Palm Sunday.

  24. Bradley,
    Nice post. You were able to make your point without getting too ham-fisted about modern correlations to Pilate and empire-building, which somewhat disappointed me, but effectively kept the peace for the Holy Week.
    I have a question, which I’ve asked many before and never been quite pleased with. Christ on a mule has always struck me as somewhat humorous, if not ironic. My interpretation here is somewhat akin to the effect that Gob creates when he rides up on his Segway. (Anyone who doesn’t catch this reference needs to repent). Except, rather than the rider being a banned-magician/$4000 dollar suit wearer, it is John McCain riding up for his inauguration speech. Better yet, maybe it’s a Vespa and an over-sized helmet decorated with the American flag.
    Is there a symbolic meaning to the mode of transport here? I’ve often heard that it is a sign of kingship. If so, where can I read about it? Is the mule a part of the Zecharia prophecy? If so, would the non-Hebrews have picked up on the meaning, or would they have chuckled like I do? If so, does that make me a wicked person?
    In other words, I’m kind of reading this like Jesus as a sort of bearded Stephen Colbert provocateur. Is there any weight to this or do I just need to grow up?

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