Sixth Sunday in Lent - liturgy of the Palms

John 12:12-16 (NRSV) The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord --  the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
The Kingdom of God is at hand.

That is one of the themes in the Gospels and here we see that the crowds saw Jesus as a King. But what follows is the Apostle John commentating on the scene: His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 

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John's comments seem to suggest that in retrospect, after the Resurrection, the episode of Jesus' entry meant something other than what they thought at the time it happened.

I think this may have something to do with the expectations of the crowds and perhaps even of the disciples at that time. The people were under the thumb of the Romans and they hoped for liberation from their oppressors. Jesus was becoming well known and attracting crowds. In this episode, they are shouting acclaim to him and they are waving palm branches and saying, Jesus is the king. Hosanna means "please save us." Probably, anticipating a defeat of the Romans, the people would be saved from the dominating power of the era. Again, another indication that expectations were high, incredibly high. Everything seemed ripe for revolution!

Yet, in a handful of days after this frenzied scene, Jesus is arrested, beaten and carrying a cross to die on it ...

As John writes this passage decades after the events, he editorialized that they didn't truly understand this moment at that moment.

I would think the re-framing of this event works on the following levels: the meaning of "hosanna," the significance of the donkey, and the surprising role of Jesus the king.

Meaning of hosanna is, as mentioned above, please save us. The people at that time may have only had in mind "salvation" of the physical variety: deliverance from Roman, getting food (Jesus miracle of feeding the multitudes), and physical healing. However, Jesus had more in mind. In the John 3 story of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus talks about being "born again" and John explains in John 3:16, the necessity of belief/trust in Jesus and what he did as necessary for eternal life. Instead of perishing, a life without God, there is the possibility of salvation, eternal life, eternal living, a life with God.

One wonders if anyone in the crowd thought the donkey was out of place? If the crowd expected a conquering king, wouldn't he ride in on a horse? But it would seem that that detail was overlooked by the crowds. Ironically, the Jewish people know the symbolism of a donkey was that of peace and not war. But at that moment, caught up in the exuberance, that was ignored. Thus, John editorialized the significance of the event as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" which is a reference to Zech 9:9-10.

And finally, King Jesus does something no ordinary earthly king would do: instead of glorious victory in battle he willingly went forward to suffer and die a humiliating death.

This is what Lent calls us to remember. Imagine a King willing to die, humbly riding in on a donkey the symbol of peace in order to bring salvation to the people whose greatest need was to be moved from alienation from God to peace with God.

That is the meaning of the Passion of the Christ: demonstrated on the Cross on Good Friday and vindicated with victory with Resurrection on Easter Sunday!

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