Our Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem: Not for Me
Mass on Palm (or Passion) Sunday includes both a brief procession with palm branches and a lengthy reading of the narrative of Our Lord’s Passion. The two aspects are disproportionate. This year, I began wondering why so little emphasis is placed on Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is what the palms are meant to recall.
I suppose the “Passion” part of “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” is a concession to the fact that so few Catholics will experience the Passion where it belongs, on Good Friday. The Church has always had a keen interest in memorializing the principal moments and meanings of Christ’s life on the Sundays of the year. After all, Sundays are the chronological backbone of the Church’s worship and the days on which all Catholics are required to attend Mass. But again, this year I found myself meditating more on the “Palm” portion of the day.
The contrast between the hosannas with which Our Lord was greeted on his entry into Jerusalem and the curses he experienced just a few days later is often cited as evidence of the fickleness of the crowd. It is said that they got it right but then very quickly got it wrong. Or some suggest we are dealing with two very different crowds. But I suspect neither view is accurate. For when the people were exultantly laying palms beneath the feet of the donkey, I doubt most of them had it right at all.
In my experience, people seldom have it right when they are going crazy in adulation of anybody. It does not matter much whether it is an actor, a singer, a politician, a preacher, an alleged saint, or the latest apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Human nature has too great and obvious a need to identify with larger-than-life figures, and an unreflective fulfillment of that need frequently lets us down. Our Lord, of course, was more than worthy of every praise. But I would wager He was acclaimed for relatively selfish reasons by most people, who then turned on him because he did not deliver the goods.
In other words, the greater part of the people were very probably wrong at both ends of the week—wrong, as is so depressingly common, from first to last.
Now if such unreflective emotional investment is a problem (and it is), it just so happens that I have exactly the opposite problem. I tend to be cynical about anybody who is too popular. I don’t trust the judgment of most people, and I typically do not have enough first-hand information to form my own judgment. My presumption is always in favor of not getting excited. I am very wary of building people up too much; and I have no desire to tear them down either. I tend not to be emotionally engaged with them at all.
What this means is also rather depressing. At Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, I would have been nowhere to be seen, far too busy shaking the dust of the world’s foolishness off of my sandals to see a greater truth. I suppose I would not have been tempted to howl for Our Lord’s death, either, and perhaps I can take some consolation in that. But my motivation would have been strictly pro forma. It does not take strong commitments to avoid such extremes. It is probably enough that I dislike crowds.
So there I was at Mass, participating in both the Palm procession and the Passion narrative, playing the roles that were designed to teach me something about myself, and recognizing more deeply than before that I simply do not fit in either of these scenes. Let me hasten to add that I do get the spiritual implications. Like anyone, I get excited about what I want and angry about what I don’t. I understand that not everyone who shouts “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and I know that I scream “Crucify Him!” each time I commit a sin. But at the historical level, assuming that I would have responded then as I respond to similar things now, I would not have been part of either crowd. If we are talking about using a Jesuit meditation technique, the only thing I can imagine about myself in either scene is my absence.
I can, of course, learn something from that, too. And what I learned this past Sunday was how much I owe the Church. I presume that God positions each of us in a time and place in which we can maximize His blessings, and I was reminded on Palm Sunday to thank Him for the cosmic courtesy of simply not letting me in on the ground floor. In the Church, after a certain span of time, one finds an opportunity to dispassionately explore the whole Christian package from every angle, to meet Christ while having access to all the information and arguments necessary to grasp who He is, and what He has done, and why He had to do it, and how He is prepared to work in one’s life now. For me, this has been an immense advantage. The Church provides an approach to Christ which I can examine, appreciate and ultimately savor. She has enabled me to commit myself with ever-increasing depth—in my own time, in my own place, in my own way, and with no crowds getting in the way.
I cannot speak for everyone, but for me this is a far greater grace than to have lived in Our Lord’s day with a first-hand glimpse of His public ministry, or to have been a part of either crowd, whether praising or condemning, in some violent initial reaction to a Christ who had not yet proved Himself by His Resurrection from the dead. Whatever combination of strengths and weaknesses I have would not have been well-matched to being on the scene. The simple truth is that I do much better with a judicious personal distance; not, I hope, in the soul, but definitely in the body.
I find in these reflections some things I do not particularly like about myself; but I also learn, once again, something about the Church. My own personal life is inscribed within the life of the Church. Far from feeling like a second-class Christian, not privileged to be present while Our Lord walked this earth, I find this circumscription within the Church to be an incomparable blessing. In the deepest possible way, the Church manifests to me the presence of her Lord. And on this particular Palm Sunday, I learned that the Church effects my good in ways that not even living in first-century Palestine could do.
For a more theological appraisal of the Church’s identity with Christ, see The Church: Like Us in All Things, but without Sin.
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Posted by: Eric -
Oct. 10, 2016 9:53 AM ET USA
What's interesting, and sad, about this is that it shows how various forms of Christianity have become Gnostic. The unspoken theology behind this is that Christ's male body is irrelevant to his true nature. Like Zeus, Christ is pure spirit and he can, and will, take any form he wishes. It won’t be long before the Episcopalians put up a golden calf in their churches, to honor Christ in the form of an animal. This will be done to highlight God’s love of nature.
Posted by: garedawg -
Oct. 06, 2016 9:53 AM ET USA
The Episcopal Church is evolving, growing, and learning its way out of existence. Last time I was at an Episcopal service, it was mostly old people and their parents.
Posted by: jg23753479 -
Mar. 26, 2013 2:38 PM ET USA
I too am leery of excessive adulation, especially of public figures. Am I alone in feeling uneasy about the current attitude expressed across the board about our new pope? Don't get me wrong: I like him and will hang on his every word as the Vicar of Christ. But the more the secular press praises him, the higher they lift him, the greater the eventual fall will be -- at least from their perspective. What happens, for example, the first time he says "gay marriage" is neither gay nor marriage?
Posted by: John J Plick -
Mar. 26, 2013 10:52 AM ET USA
The Lord's "triumphal" entry into Jerusalem, I would say, is "not for you" because it simply "was not...," that is, His "triumphal entry into Jerusalem." Palms for the Jews were like American flags. They were welcoming what they (the Jews) thought was a "political leader," not a mind-boggling human sacrifice for their sins. As it was for the apostles it was for them..., simply beyond their comprehension. At the End of Time Our Lord will return. For now, our part, is Golgotha.
Posted by: koinonia -
Mar. 25, 2013 6:28 PM ET USA
"In my experience, people seldom have it right when they are going crazy in adulation of anybody." True. Temperance and prudence in concert with reason have their merits. "I learned that the Church effects my good in ways that not even living in first-century Palestine could do." Now you're talking. The New Evangelization will bear great fruit if this truth is realized by many. Thanks for the reflections.