In ancient times generals and kings celebrated their victories with triumphal processions. Huge crowds came out into the streets to welcome the victors with shouts and acclamations. A triumph was an organized spectacle involving chariots, soldiers, war booty, and chained captives, all creating an awesome display of worldly pomp and power, the loftiest expression of might and honor in the mindset of the pagan world.
Palm Sunday marks the ‘triumphal’ Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. What kind of triumph was it? What king, asks St. John Chrysostom, ever came into a city riding a donkey? It was a triumphal entry because Jesus was received with joyous excitement on the feast of the Jewish Passover. People greeted Jesus waving palms and shouting acclamations: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:12)
Jesus accepted the royal reception, but on His own terms. No chariots or soldiers or war captives led the way. His company was but a band of Galilean peasants and fishermen. The reception was spontaneous and momentary.
But it was also an outburst of popular hope longing for a king who would overthrow the Romans and liberate the Jewish people. By acclaiming Jesus as a king, the people were harping on revolution against Caesar. This was an age of unrest, a period of social and political tension, a time of outbreaks of violence. It culminated eventually in the great war between the Jews and the Romans (68-73 AD) in which Jerusalem was ravaged and the Temple itself burnt to the ground (68-70 AD).
What was Christ’s role in this? He was essentially a pacifist. Riding a donkey was an act of symbolic correction to the popular hope of revolution. He had come not as an aggressor armed with weapons, but as a peaceful Messiah, sent by God in fulfillment of the prophecy by the Prophet Zechariah: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt” (Zech. 9:9-10; John 12:15).
Zechariah had foreseen a righteous and humble King, a messianic Leader who would establish righteousness and peace among all nations. That was the aim of Jesus during the final witness of His mission in Jerusalem. And that is the central message of Palm Sunday: Christ is the King, the herald, and worker of God’s righteousness and of peace for all people on earth.
Christ was a pacifist but by no means someone weak and passive. He confronted both the mighty and the lowly with the message of God’s kingdom shown in His healings, exorcisms, and blessings to peacemakers. He preached the truth of God’s love and forgiveness. He called for radical conversion of life to God’s ways of justice and peace.
Christ answered accusations with bold authority, hatred with mercy, persecution with non-violence, torture with courageous silence, crucifixion with gracious prayer for forgiveness of the crucifiers. He was sent by God “for the fall and rising of many” (Luke 2:34). The greatest act of pacifism was Christ’s self-offering on the Cross, a supreme act of unfathomable voluntary regal humility for the redemption and reconciliation of the world.
Palm Sunday marks a highpoint from which we view and engage Holy Week and Holy Pascha. It invites us as faithful to join Christ, indeed to re-live Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection as a turning point in history where grace overcame sin, light defeated darkness, life conquered death. And yet the forces of evil and the powers of death appear to thrive in the world. The world seems to have become paganized in its pursuit of pleasure, material wealth, and the resurgence of barbaric violence.
In the Middle East where Christ lived and walked, the forces of old grievances and racial prejudices continue to break out in acts of hatred and vengeance. In Europe, where relative peace prevailed for a generation, rivalries between ‘East and West’ have suddenly turned into a vicious war, a tragic theater of death and destruction. Pray that the world powers work to end the carnage, and restore stability, before the possibility of a conflagration that could engulf our entire globe.
But what does it mean to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter in such circumstances? It is a call to holy living in an unholy world. When we join in worship to enact liturgically the sufferings and resurrection of Christ, we in fact join with Him in sharing the sufferings of the world. We join with Him in prayer and hope for the victory of God’s grace as the only true basis for peace in human society.
Christ asks us, as He asked His disciples, to stand with Him in prayer and worship, to be alert and to be ready to bear witness to God’s truth and righteousness. When we kneel with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and pray for courage and strength, we share with Him the agony and pain of the world. We submit ourselves to God’s loving will and care in order that God’s grace will overcome the ways of human wickedness and ignorance.
When we join with Christ before the courts of the high and mighty, we stand with courage to proclaim in our own way, and for our times the words of Ezekiel:
“Thus says the Lord God: Enough, O princes of Israel” (Ezekiel 45:9) and we can add – and Palestine, and of the Middle East and Africa, and of Europe and America! – before he adds: “Let God’s blessings of justice and peace be poured out from heaven to refresh the earth!”
When we are crucified with Christ in our hearts, and nailed with Him on the Cross in faith and love, and when we pray with Him, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing,” we declare our own readiness to sacrifice our own self-importance, our ingrained selfishness, in order to be transformed into agents of God’s reconciliation and peace in the world.
The evils that spring from human hearts, the deeds of aggression and war, of injustice and oppression, of killing and destruction, cannot be overcome with reliance on guns and bombs that only deepen the wounds and enflame vengeful passions. When the Lord says, “Whoever lives by the sword, will die by the sword,” it applies to nations and to individuals as admonition to walk the path of peace.
Let us follow the example of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who in today’s Gospel anointed Jesus with costly perfume as a token of commitment to Christ, a symbolic act anticipating His death and burial.
Let us be crucified with Christ, following His way of self-sacrifice, with sober-minded pacificism and creative nonviolence. Christ commanded, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mat 7:33). What things? Human dignity, social justice, political freedom, economic development, and not least fair negotiation between the world powers for stability and peace.
God’s miracle of resurrection occurs only through heartfelt conversion of our hearts, a costly sacrifice of self through forgiveness and mercy. As agents of moral freedom, human beings generate their own version of hell on earth. God’s blessings of a just peace and viable harmony in the world cannot be imposed on the nations by divine fiat.
God’s grace works miracles where it finds receptive ground. God’s message rings out to all nations with power and clarity: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5:14). God desires leaders who “deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness” (Jer. 23:5). God’s promise is authoritative and trustworthy: “Keep justice and do what is right, and soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance will be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1).
An Orthodox tradition is to distribute palms in the shape of a cross, reminding us that Christ the King came to suffer and to die. But the Cross of Christ is also an emblem of victory and joy. On this feast of Palm Sunday, let our joy be stronger than sadness, our courage stronger than fear, our hope brighter than gloom. We do not count on our own powers for salvation. We count on Christ the King to grant us true joy, courage, and hope.
In the words of St. Paul from today’s Epistle reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice! … Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious . . . think [and do] these things … and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:4-9). Amen.
Rev. Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Holy Cross School of Theology.