Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 27, 2010
Fr. Thomas takes a closer look at the "Celebration of the Kingship of Christ."
The Christian Church celebrates the event of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before the great celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection from the dead, the holy Pascha. The event of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is recorded in all the four Gospels. It is one of the things that is found in all of the Gospels. In Mark and in Matthew and in Luke, the entrance into Jerusalem is also connected, after the entrance, with the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus when he sees that the Temple is somehow being violated by becoming a house of commerce and buying and selling and so on that Jesus gets angry over, whereas in St. John’s Gospel, the theological Gospel, the cleansing of the temple actually begins in the beginning of the Gospel.
Now in Mark and Matthew and Luke, we have the recording of Jesus entering into the city. We have this recording actually recorded before the final discourses of Jesus about the coming of the end and the end of the world which will be read in the Church during Holy Week. So in Mark, for example, we have in the eleventh chapter simply stated, very simply and starkly as is in the custom of Mark: When they drew near to Jerusalem to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you. Immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied and which no one has ever sat, untie it and bring it and if anyone says to you, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ you just tell them the Lord has need of it, and they will send it back here immediately.”
And they went, they found the colt, they untied it, and then when they were asked, “Why are you untying it?” They say that Jesus has need of it, and they let them go, they bring the colt to Jesus, throw their garments upon it. He sits upon it, and they spread their garments on the road and they spread leafy branches that have been cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming. Hosanna in the highest!” Then he enters Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple.
Basically that’s the same story that you find in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew there is an interesting touch because Matthew directly quotes the prophet Zachariah, where you have this double expression in the Hebrew Bible: the foal of an ass. And it’s funny that Matthew uses a plural. He says, “He puts the cloaks on them,” but there was only one donkey, as just they repeat in a different way the saying about the one animal. But Jesus is on it, and he enters into the city and you have these lines from the great psalm, the victory psalm, Psalm 118, which will be used again on the Holy Pascha: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest! God is saving us!”
But in Mark and Matthew and Luke just like in John we should know that, contrary to what people imagine on Palm Sunday, this entry into Jerusalem was no great long-lasting, universal celebration of the Lord’s coming. Probably it was even done by a handful of people with a bunch of children at a very short period of time that he comes in on that donkey. The people see him in John’s Gospel. They know that he has raised Lazarus. They call out to him with this marvelous name: “Hosanna! Alleluia! Blessed is he who comes, [the] son of David!” and then it’s over. And then it’s over, and it says in the Gospels the disciples didn’t even quite understand what was going on. In St. John’s Gospel it says specifically that they didn’t understand it.
But we do understand it. We understand that it was the one time on earth when Jesus, by children—out of the mouths of the babes and sucklings—the prophecy says, “He has received perfect praise.” That’s a prophecy. It had to be fulfilled. He had to enter the holy city before he was kicked out of the city. He had to cleanse the Temple before he himself became the living Temple. And the Temple was destroyed, and he speaks about the Temple of his own body at the Passion. That’s one of the accusations against Jesus: that he would destroy the Temple and raise it up. And it says he spoke about the Temple of his own body, so he has to enter the city in glory in order to be expelled from it in ignominy—to be expelled from it in degradation and humiliation and revilement and debasement—but that moment did take place. We believe it took place: that he entered the city, and he was glorified even by the mouths of children and babes, and then the leaders of the people saw it and they became terrified and they decided to kill him. So this is what is celebrated on Palm Sunday.
And it’s interesting to note not only the Gospel readings for Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, which go together, but also to note the epistle readings on these days, because on Saturday, on Lazarus Saturday, the epistle reading is taken from Hebrews, and it’s a reading that people could wonder, “Gee, why is this particular reading read on the festival of the raising of Lazarus? Is it simply because we’re coming to the end of the epistle of the Hebrews that’s read during Lent so we have to end it and get it over with and move on?” No, I don’t think that’s the answer. What it really seems to be is, strangely enough, a warning, a connection that if we do celebrate the raising of Lazarus and Palm Sunday, then we had better take care of the poor. So you have the linking again to that parable in Luke of Lazarus and the rich man, because the reading begins, “Let’s be grateful for having received the kingdom that can not be shaken, let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” So it tells us we are to be in terror of what God is doing here, what he’s showing us.
And then you have: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Do not neglect to visit those who are in prison, who are ill-treated. Don’t commit adultery. Honor marriage. Honor the poor. Let your life be free from love of money.” There you have the connection with the rich man in the parable: “Be content with what you have. I will never fail you.” And then it says, “Remember your leaders. remember who taught you.” And that could go back to Moses, even: “Consider the outcome of their life.” And then it says, it ends with: “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Yesterday in the time of Moses, today in the time of Paul, and forever, including our time here in the 21st century: Jesus Christ the same.
So we are warned: if he is our Lord, we have to keep his commandments. we have to flee from luxury, carnality, just building up our own treasures on earth. And we have to care for the poor, the prisoners, those who have nothing. We have to be faithful in our marriages. We have to avoid all immorality and adulterous and carnal living. We have to be free from the love of money, which St. Paul says is idolatry. We have to do all these things, otherwise the resurrection of Christ doesn’t save us: the resurrection of him who is the same yesterday: in the time of Moses and the prophets; today: at the time of Paul, whoever is writing this letter; and forever and ever: including today in the 21st century.
And then we can know that the epistle for the Sunday Liturgy of the entry of Lord to Jerusalem is taken from the letter to the Philippians, and it’s so wonderful, because on Palm Sunday you have that one time—the only time when on the planet Earth Jesus was hailed as king and Lord. He was rejected here, [but] there was that one moment, that one period, on that afternoon when he came riding on that donkey as a victory procession. And it was a victory procession. That’s why it says: “bearing the branches of victory,” and the Gospel is the victory of the king, and the king is Christ, but he will be victorious through the Cross. But before the Cross, he is hailed as the victorious king. And we should not forget that the title on his Cross, in all four Gospels was “King of the Jews.” He is the king of the Jews. Palm Sunday is the most Hebraic and Jewish of all the festivals in the Christian Church, the beloved people Israel with their beloved Messiah, the one that God loves and was faithful to to the end, through whom he saves all the Gentiles and the whole of creation: Jesus, the king of the Jews. So he is honored on that day as the king, the king of the Jews.
And so the epistle on Palm Sunday, it seems to me, is a kind of statement to us believers in Jesus, those who believe: it is all written that we may believe how we ought to be, what our life ought to look like if Jesus is our king, what our life ought to look like if we hold in our hands the palms and the branches, what our life ought to look like if we sing, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes, the son of David, the king of Israel!” what ought our life to look like if Jesus is our king. And the celebration of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the celebration of the kingdom, the kingship of Christ it is sometimes called in Jewish tradition, the feast of the kingdom, the feast of Christ as king.
So what does that epistle say? It begins by saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I would say rejoice!” Because if Christ is our king, then we rejoice. It’s a sign on our face that we have the joy that no one can take away from us. Those who belong to Christ who are morose, dark, irritated, judgmental: they are not Christians; they are not disciples of Christ. Christ’s disciples are characterized by joy, rejoicing in the victory of Christ, the victory of God in Christ, filled with exceedingly great joy, from the beginning of the Gospel when the shepherds, through the angels, they were filled with exceedingly great joy at hearing these glad tidings. The Gospel in the New Testament writings, the Gospels and the Acts will end with exceeding great joy, exceeding great joy.
So we are commanded to rejoice, on the Sunday of Myrrh-bearing women after Pascha there would be songs that say the myrrh-bearing women were commanded to rejoice. We have the commandment of God to be joyful, so it says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” The second verse says, “Let all people know your forbearance, your patient endurance, your suffering, your long-suffering, because the Lord is at hand.” Then it says, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with eucharistia, with thanksgiving let your petitions, your requests, be made known to God.”
So Christians are characterized [as] people devoid of anxiety. No anxiety about anything, because we trust, we make our needs known to God with gratitude, with thanksgiving for his victory and [the knowledge] that he will take care of us. And then it says, “And the peace of God”—the shalom, the peace that characterizes the kingdom that passes all understanding “will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” So: peace and joy. The Apostle Paul would say that the kingdom of God is the peace and the joy and the righteousness in the Holy Spirit, and those are the great characteristics of the kingship of the Messiah, the kingdom of God shalom, eirini, peace, joy, en dikaiosini, sadaka in Hebrew, righteousness, justice, these are the things that characterize the Christian life if Christ is our king.
And then you have this marvelous sentence: “And, finally, brothers and sisters, finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” That’s what a Christian is: a Christian is a human being who believes that the one true and living God has acted in this world through his Son and Word and icon, Jesus of Nazareth, born of the virgin, who is crucified and raised and glorified for our salvation, the Lord of the living and the dead, the judge of the universe. And those who belong to him, those who have him as their king, those who hold the palms and the branches in their hands, those who sing “Hosanna” to him are people who only think about whatever is true, whatever is precious, honorable, whatever is just or righteous, whatever is pure or clean, whatever is lovely or beautiful, whatever is gracious, anything excellent, anything worthy of praise. This is where their minds and hearts are. True, honorable just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, worthy of praise: that’s where the Christian is.
And then the epistle reading ends. It’s a short epistle reading. It ends: “And what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,” the apostle Paul writes, “you do it, and the God of peace will be with you.”
So we pray on Palm Sunday when we glorify Jesus as our king, before his saving passion. We pray that what we have learned, what we have received, what we have heard and seen, not only in the Apostle Paul but in Christ himself and all his saints, that we would do it. And we know that in doing it, the God of peace will be always with us, and we will have that peace that passes human understanding.
We celebrate the raising of Lazarus and the Lord’s entrance into [Jerusalem on] Palm Sunday before the week of his saving passion. And that celebration—it’s a foretaste, it’s a victory foretaste, within the conditions of the fallen world, of the victory that will take place a week later, that will recreate the whole world and transform, as it says in the service, “even the place of the skull, Golgotha, into Paradise.” We celebrate the universal resurrection and the glorification of Jesus by the raising of Lazarus before we celebrate his own death and his own raising by God the Father into the glory of the kingdom that literally has no end.