Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday — Dr. Joel Marcus

“Ride On, Ride On, In Majesty”

Mark 11:1-11

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.

Now, I don’t want to go into detail about all the complicated historical questions concerning the historicity of this portrayal. As a historian, I think that the Gospels probably exaggerate three factors: 1) the degree of initial enthusiasm for Jesus amongst the Jewish populace, 2) the degree of their subsequent disillusionment with him, and 3) the reluctance of the Roman authorities to execute him. And all of those exaggerations serve theological purposes—on the one hand, to demonstrate that Jesus truly was the Messiah, and was so acknowledged by the people to whom he was sent, and, on the other hand, to foreshadow the situation in the Gospel writers’ own days, when the Jewish people had, by and large, rejected Jesus’ messianic claims, and the Christian movement was more and more turning to the Gentiles and concerned to get on the good side of the Roman authorities.

But what I want to concentrate on here is the pathos lurking behind the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ rapturous reception by the people of his homeland’s capital city. Because this is something that, I think, reverberates with us all. Our joys are shadowed by mortality. As it is written in what, in my humble opinion, is the greatest Palm Sunday hymn—a hymn that was present in the 1940 hymnal but has mysteriously vanished from the 1982 one: “Ride on, ride on, in majesty; in lowly pomp ride on to die.”

And that is the power of the Palm Sunday story. Today is a day of glory, of majesty, of the momentary rippling out onto the earth of the power of the God of the whole universe and of all of history–a day in which that God manifested himself in such a way that people could not help recognizing him and crying out for him to save them and being assured that he would save them. In another of the Gospels, that of Luke, some Pharisees ask Jesus to rebuke the crowds that have been hailing him as the Messiah, and he responds, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Palm Sunday is about how God’s power rips out into the earth in a way that cannot be stopped.

There are moments like that—moments when the power of God suddenly seems to break forth into the earthly sphere, in a way that is unstoppable and incontestable, and when that happens you are reduced to silence and awe and sometimes tears. I have to say that I felt that way on the evening of November 4, 2008, when I was watching the video stream from the victory rally in Grant Park in Chicago, and I saw Jessie Jackson being interviewed. Now Jessie Jackson has not always been my absolute favorite as a politician, especially after his reference to New York City as “Hymietown” in 1984. But there was Jessie Jackson, waiting with Oprah Winfry and Stevie Wonder and 240,000 assorted other supporters for the new-elected President Obama to appear and give his victory speech. And Jessie was being interviewed by a CNN reporter, and tears were streaming down his cheeks, and watching him, I suddenly felt choked up too.

Because it all seemed so momentous, something we had been waiting for for so long but thinking was impossible and yet hoping against hope that it might someday happen, though probably not in our lifetime. I remember that this was a topic of dinner-table discussion when I was growing up: “Which do you think we’ll have first: a black President or a Jewish President?” I don’t think we even discussed the possibility of a woman President in those days. But then flash-forward forty years or so, and suddenly we knew the answer to this old conundrum, because there it was, happening right in front of our eyes. And I just wished that my mother, who was an old lefty and civil rights advocate and had died a year before, in November 2007—I just wished she had still been alive to see that day, and I remember saying to myself the words of the Jewish prayer Shehecheyanu: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has given us life, and sustained us, and brought us to this day.”

Well, even that night, we knew of course that our exhiliration wouldn’t last. And so it is with the exhiliration of Palm Sunday—it can’t last, and it doesn’t last, for it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In Mark’s Gospel, the Triumphal Entry story ends with Jesus entering Jerusalem and going into the Temple and looking around at everything there. And what he sees there apparently does not please him much, because the next day he goes back and causes a riot, throwing out the money-changers and thus antagonizing the powers-that-be. The guy just doesn’t know how to rest on his laurels. He can’t stop himself from hurtling forward into the fray. He is impelled to challenge the authorities through the same catalytic power that has swept him into the city—to challenge the authorities and thus, within less than a week, to bring about his own demise.

This joy, then, like all our joy, is shadowed by mortality. If we are lucky enough to have found a partner whom we really love and who loves us–and I say “if,” because not everyone is that lucky—we know that, in the end, one of us will be bereaved. There is a price to love, and the price is death. This is portrayed in a beautiful and haunting way in Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, which is the second opera in the massive four-opera Ring Cycle. Here a divine being, a Valkyrie, moved by the passionate love of a doomed human couple for each other, tries to help them. She thus defies her father, the king of the gods, who has decreed that the couple must die to satisfy the inexorable law of sin and death that is built into the structure of the universe. In punishment for disobeying her father and siding with the human lovers, this divine being, this Valkyrie, whose name happens to be Brunhilde—the name sounds a lot less funny to German-speakers than it does to English-speakers—in punishment her father Wotan sentences her, his favorite daughter, to lose her immortality and enter into the human sphere of life and death. And so she does so, and ends up having her own joyful and tragic love affair with a human being, Siegfried, who lends his name to the third opera, but who unfortunately ends up being bewitched by another woman snd rejecting Brunhilde. He only ends up being reconciled to her shortly before he himself is killed—a death that is quickly followed by Brunhilde’s suicide and the death of all the gods—the Götterdammerung, the name of the fourth opera–which simultaneously means the liberation of humanity. There you have it—not only the whole Passion Narrative, but also the essentials of the Ring Cycle, except that I didn’t mention the ring, to explain which I’d really have to go back to the first opera, Rheingold. If you’ve got a few more hours, I can do that. For now, let me just say that JRR Tolkien did not invent the idea of a ring of power that grants worldwide dominion but inevitably corrupts whoever wears it. But for today’s purposes let me just concentrate on the central theme of the cycle: It is about immortal power sacrificing itself for the sake of human love—a love that ends in death, and that yet somehow, mysteriously, transcends death as well.

And that is also the promise hidden in the Triumphal Entry story.The Triumphal Entry ends in a confrontation that leads to death. But that death is not the end either. The triumph of Palm Sunday is cut short by Jesus’s clash with the powers-that-be, as he is impelled by his love for humanity and his righteous wrath against its corrupters to go to war against everything that twists our institutions, even the best of them, even the church, into a lifeless, self-sustaining machinery of greed, social control, and repression. That battle leads to Jesus’s death. Palm Sunday leads inexorably to Good Friday. But Good Friday is not the end either. There is another victory march coming, one that cannot be defeated by death, indeed, a victory march that feeds on death, chewing it up and transforming it into life. As the last verse of the hymn I referred to before says:

Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
In lonely pomp ride on to die;
Bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, thy power, and reign.

Death is certainly coming to all of us, and to all we hold dear. That is just a fact of life—one that we are always trying to suppress. But death is the shadow that gives our life its depth, that gives it its dimension of tragedy, which is also part of its glory. But that death will not be the end; as Shakespeare puts it in Ariel’s haunting song from The Tempest, we will all instead suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange. How rich, and how strange, will be hinted at in next Sunday’s lessons.

Now, however, is not yet the time to pull back the curtain and glimpse what is hidden behind it. Now is the time to settle into the rhythm of Holy Week as we move forward step by step from triumph to betrayal to trial to condemnation to death and back to triumph again. Let us begin to do so by singing the verses of the hymn I’ve referred to, which you’ll find on the separate sheet in your bulletin.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes hosanna cry.
O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,
With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
0 Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
The angel armies of the sky
Look down with sad and wondering eyes
To see the approaching Sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
The Father on His sapphire throne
Expects His own anointed Son.
Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain.
Then take, O Christ, Thy power and reign.