Visiting the Holy Land and undertaking long distances pilgrimage walks has shaped my vision of the triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples had travelled from Jericho which is about 40km from Jerusalem. They must have been exhausted but as they approach their destination they’re elated. The topography is perfect. They make their way over the Mount of Olives and then suddenly the city is laid out before them. Their joy must have been infectious to anyone nearby and when others catch wind that this Rabbi everyone has been talking about is arriving others soon join them. Some are just swept up and may even be oblivious to what’s going on but a crowd has an energy all of its own.
We refer to it as the triumphal entry but it seems to be very largely a spontaneous event. The scriptures give us those curious details about Jesus sending the disciples ahead to collect the ass and colt which leaves us wondering if he’s seen into the future or if he’s somehow made some previous arrangements. Certainly, there’s no sense of anyone else having been responsible for planning this arrival.
The contrast between this event, which take place at the Eastern end of the city, and the highly choreographed parade that we understand Pilate made on first day of Passover Week entering the Western gate is striking. Pilate’s usual base was on the coast at Caesarea Maritima. He made the sixty-mile journey to Jerusalem at Passover, accompanied by hundreds of Roman troops, to remind the Jews that regardless of what they may think of their status in the eyes of their God, Rome is their master. The chariots, horses and foot soldiers, dressed for battle and armed with swords and spears is a show of strength, meant to inspire awe and fear, respect and obedience so that Rome’s authority will not be questioned.
The experience of these two very different entries to the City will have contrasted greatly and they point to very different priorities, very different ways of viewing the world and even perhaps very different ways of being in the world which can tell us something about the life of faith. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem is like a counter-procession, it presents us with a different vision of what power and what a Kingdom should be. It’s profoundly subversive. Jesus’ humble, yet triumphal, entry into Jerusalem stood in contrast to the magnificence and brutality on display at the opposite end of the city. Pilate brings a sword. Jesus brings peace.
The symbolic resonances of Jesus’ entry to the city are every bit as significant as Pilate’s. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, leaders rode horses if they rode to war but donkeys if they came in peace. The first book of Kings mentions Solomon riding a donkey on the day he was recognised as the new king of Israel. The mention of a donkey in Zechariah’s prophecy fits the description of a king who would be righteous and gentle. Rather than riding to conquer, he foretells a king who would come in peace. Zechariah describes this peace in symbolic detail- “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth.”
Matthew pays particular attention to the fulfilment of prophecy from Zechariah. Mark, Luke and John are all content to have Jesus riding on one animal. Matthew describes Jesus riding on both an ass and her colt. It’s a very curious detail but the crucial point is that the king of heaven enters not on a war horse but on a low status animal of industry and peace.
We see echoes of Pilate’s great parades in our days. In Red Square, Tiananmen Square, Kim Il Sung Square. Some of us I know find some of the military participants at the Lord’s Mayor Show each year a bit uncomfortable but comparatively it’s all rather endearingly amateur beyond the bands and ceremonials. I don’t imagine there was much endearingly amateur about Pilate’s entry to Jerusalem. Any slip ups would be heavily punished I expect.
What these kinds of parade seek to do is to draw attention to the overwhelming force available to those in power so as to discourage any dissent and to make clear that stability and prosperity depend on compliance. The Pax Romana – the peace of Rome – was the boast of the empire but it was secured not through a helping hand but through an iron fist.
Those same dynamics are still at work. Nations continue to kill their own people in order to maintain power. Governments turn a blind eye or even sponsor police brutality and mass incarceration. We’re privileged enough to live in a country where we are not subject to such repression, and we can openly speak about these things without fear of reprisal. Nevertheless, we often hear appeals to fundamentally different sources of power –the power of compassion, of relationship, of love – characterised as well-meaning but ultimately naïve. We live in a world of realpolitik. Our stability and prosperity depend on our making some difficult decisions. The logic is applied to how we understand other people, if we welcome refugees well just encourage more; and to the environment – we have dead rivers and polluted water ways in our country but that’s cheaper than developing adequate water treatment capacity and it keeps down the price of chicken.
Shalom, the Jewish understanding of peace, is much more about the helping hand than the iron fist. It’s the fruit of right relations – with God, with neighbour, with the environment. Matthew makes a clear distinction between those outside the city who parade with Jesus, and those inside the city. Those outside the city are praising Jesus as the Messiah; those inside are in turmoil, and asking, “Who is this?”
The crowd cheers and celebrates Jesus today but it will geer and call for his blood a few days hence. Those people who cheered for blood weren’t bad people. They were just like us. Most of them would have been good parents, faithful wives and husbands, participated in their community – generously offered help and advice to others. They belonged to a society that perpetuated inequalities and injustices. They considered their lives and those of others around just the way things were.
Faith familiarises us with an alternative way of seeing and being in the world. It teaches us not to push others away but to welcome them in. We constantly fall short of course but as we journey from this celebration of peace to that baying for blood we can aspire to live by different rules and be encouraged by those who wish to do likewise knowing that Christ trod this path to victory. In the sacrament we receive week by week the bread of life, our spiritual sustenance. It is the assurance that, despite a difficult journey, our failings won’t define us, but ultimately, sharing in an unconditional and infinite love will.
Thanks be to God.