“Ride On, Ride On, In Majesty”
We have just heard the whole passion narrative read, in Mark’s rendition. And, as this week progresses, we will move step by step through that narrative. But for now I want to backtrack to the Gospel lesson we heard read outside the church today, which forms the necessary background for Holy Week. This is the Gospel lesson that is rightly called the story of the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
For this is the story of a triumph—a word whose first definition my New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Thumb Index Edition) gives as “the processional entrance of a victorious commander with his army and spoils into Rome.” These spoils usually included not only the treasures of the defeated kingdom—for example, the solid gold menorah and showbread table of the Temple in Jerusalem, which can still be seen depicted on Hadrian’s Arch in Rome—but also the soldiers from the defeated army, who were led through the streets of Rome in chains, and the leaders of whom were then publicly executed, while the rest of the soldiers and other captives were sold into slavery.
Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, of course, is not exactly that sort of triumph. We don’t hear of any conquered soldiers being dragged through the city in chains, or killed, or sold into slavery—but there is still something triumphalist about the scene, like a military victory parade or, to get closer to our time and place, the exultation of sports-maddened basketball fans when their team wins. The scene of the finding of the colt recalls a famous messianic text from the Old Testament, Zechariah 9, in which Jerusalem’s king comes to her humble and riding on a donkey’s colt—the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, calls this “a new colt.” To this corresponds Mark’s detail that the colt Jesus rides on has never been ridden before—it is “new” because it has never been ridden. Although this king in Zechariah is described as humble, and the passage goes on to speak rapturously about the peace he will bring, it is the sort of peace that is achieved by a decisive victory in war. We haven’t had many victories of that sort lately—all of our victories seem to turn to ashes in our mouth–but they do sometimes happen. Think V-E Day and V-J Day at the end of World War II, and those classic pictures of total strangers kissing each other in exultation and relief.
Jesus, then, is being portrayed as a victor, and one whose victory is being acknowledged by a grateful people who expect him to save them from oppression and establish his kingdom from sea to shining sea. At the same time, however, this scene is also full of pathos. Because the reader knows, the hearer knows, we know that this acknowledgement of Jesus will be short-lived, and that the same Jerusalem crowds that are now rapturously feting him will, within a few short days, turn against him and scream for his execution. Continue reading