Palm Sunday; Matthew 21: 9-12
Christ enters the city
History is riddled with great historic dates. Today we remember one, A.D. 32 approximately. A date when it looked a fledgling movement had died, but in fact it grew into the greatest movement of faith the world has ever known, with billions of followers. When Jesus enters Jerusalem he didn’t enter the city in a vacuum, in virtual reality or somehow detached from the people. He entered into a real and complicated world of Romans and Jews of different persuasions. The temple was in the hands of the Sadducees, a group in line with the Romans. It is they who are to blame for the temple becoming so polluted by business and by money. What Jesus did by overturning the tables and blasting the money changers was a revolutionary act that challenged the established order, fragile as it was.
Jesus is being celebrated into Jerusalem by palm waving people as if He is a king, a celebrity, but we can sincerely doubt that He felt like that. He knew most likely what was to come. He knew the dangers. Romans were in the habit of crucifying rebels along the roads in different way, a brutal way to kill someone. This supposedly got worse since Pontius Pilate was assigned as prefect for the region. There were also insurrections in Judea and the Romans wanted to send a clear message.
Friends, there are layers of meaning here. There is the meaning Jesus’ entry has for Him, there is the meaning it has for the palm frond waving crowd, there is the meaning it has for the disciples who will tell the story to be penned down decades later, there is the meaning it has the high priest Caiaphas and for the Jewish rulers under control of the Romans. Then there is the meaning it has for us. This takes us to the question James Ensor’s painting “Christ’s entry into Brussels” is posing to me and perhaps to you:” Does the entry of Christ into the city” always mean the same thing? Or does the message change in different times and places? Generally when we do Palm Sunday, we focus not on the calm before the storm, but on party before the tragedy. It is a fleeting moment when we are reminded of the greatness of Christ and the hope He represents, only to move on to Good Friday and Easter very rapidly. We can notice that Ensor calls it “Christ’s entry,” not “Jesus’ entry.” He thereby acknowledges that we are dealing with the eternal and divine figure, not just the man Jesus. We also notice how large the canvas is and how small Christ is. It reminds us that the people always try to be in the forefront. Yet, when we think of it, nobody except of few Belgian historians remembers who these people were. Their being forgotten and now being irrelevant is the most prominent thing about them. The one permanent thing is Christ, the One Who comes to us still year after year and Who leaves us wondering what it all means.
This was 1888. Now let’s go back in history 24 years. What if there was a painting of Christ’s entry into Copenhagen and Christ’s entry in Washington. The Danish people had great visions of grandeur in 1863. They felt powerful and in their confidence took them into war against the mighty Prussians who defeated them decisively. This changed the self-image of the Danes forever. It turned them inward and made them think of their culture as small. Would Christ’s entry into Copenhagen have meant something different in 1863 than it would have meant in 1865? 1864 in the US was one of the most brutal years of the Civil War. What would we see of a painting of Christ’s entering? Would we see the Union soldiers or the Confederate or both? Would we see a rising African American population, would we see smug politicians on both sides or would Lincoln dominate it all? And how would a painting of Christ’s entry into Washington have been different painted in 1860 as compared to 1866?
Friends, the point is that the context changes and the people who crowd into the foreground always change, but one thing that remains the same is that Christ enters our lives year after year as the One we must celebrate, as the One Who brings us hope. What does that mean?
What it means is in essence transformation. God is always transforming the world through the people in the picture. Today in the painting it was a bunch of rowdy Belgians from 1888, a snapshot crowd of days gone by, but we could think of today’s city, state or national politicians and clergy persons. We could even think of ourselves in the picture: Christ entering across the Golden Tower Bridge, Christ coming in on route 160, past the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacramento, between the orange trees and palms of Capitol Park. We can imagine all that. The scene changes and the characters change. Even as the characters fade with time, the crowd in the picture of Palm Sunday remains important, because it is through us that God seeks to transform the world. So in all the paintings we could make of Christ’s entry in the city Christ is always constant and we the characters change, but the characters always matter tremendously, they always belong in the picture, for it is through them that Christ came to transform the world. Great is our responsibility. Thanks be to God!