MT 21:1-11; IS 50:4-7; PS 22; PHIL 2:6-11; MT 26:14-27:66
If you ever pay a visit to the Scottish National Gallery on Edinburgh’s Princes Street, you’ll quickly happen upon Raphael’s painting The Holy Family with a Palm Tree. It’s an idyllic depiction, with St Joseph making a floral offering to the Virgin Mary holding her rather cheery, rather chubby, newborn son.
And yet, there behind them stands the palm tree, casting a metaphorical shadow over the scene. It is a prophetic indication of what this babe was born for: the triumphal entry he would have into Jerusalem. The Passion and Cross would then follow.
And so we find that on Palm Sunday, Lent changes gear: we prepare to accompany Christ in triumph through the streets of Jerusalem; we prepare to accompany him through his Passion, to the Cross, into the tomb and on to new life. The normative purple of Lent gives way to scarlet red, indicating the supreme redemptive sacrifice Christ was entering the city to fulfil. And our guide this year is St Matthew.
“When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ ” (Matthew 21:10). The crowd enquired on behalf of all humanity with a question that every one of us, at some stage in our lives, has to give answer.
As the Irish rock star Bono said in 2013: “When people say ‘good teacher’, ‘prophet’, ‘really nice guy’ – this is not how Jesus thought of himself. So, you’re left with a challenge in that, which is either Jesus was who he said he was or a complete and utter nutcase. You have to make a choice on that, and I believe that Jesus was […] the Son of God.”
Matthew is similarly without doubts. Writing in Aramaic for a mostly Jewish audience less than two decades after the actual events, a repeated assertion of his Gospel is that Jesus had come to establish his kingdom in fulfilment of the Old Testament messianic prophesies. Indeed, Matthew refers to “the Kingdom” on 51 occasions, more than any other Evangelist, earning his writings the title of “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. He also wins the prize for references to the Old Testament, with nearly 70 of them, frequently followed by the assertion that in Jesus such prophecies are now “fulfilled”.
Thus, in Matthew’s recounting of Palm Sunday, we have Jesus claiming the ancient right of monarchs to requisition transport and, in doing so, he fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass.
Such historical parallels were not lost on Matthew nor, most likely, on his Jewish readers. They would recall how Solomon rode upon a mule towards Gihon to be anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet (1 Kings 1:33-34). They would also know that the spreading of garments invokes another tradition of Israelite kingship: “Then in haste every man of them took his garment, and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’ ” (2 Kings 9:13).
Further, they would be aware that the blessing proclaimed by the Jerusalem crowd, which was drawn from Israel’s pilgrim liturgy (Psalm 118:26), is given heightened significance by the enthusiastic preface, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:9). Originally a plea for divine supplication, by the time of Jesus the word “Hosanna” had taken on messianic overtones.
Meanwhile, “Son of David” is another phrase employed most regularly by Matthew’s Gospel – in fact, it features in the very first line of his Gospel – carrying with it those claims to a Davidic regal lineage.
Such is the lasting impact of listening upon memory, that whenever I hear Matthew’s depiction of Palm Sunday, I am taken straight back to St Peter’s Square on April 15, 1984. Pope St John Paul had declared a Holy Year of the Redemption to mark the 1,950th anniversary of the Passion of the Lord. He decided to invite the young people of the world to join him on Palm Sunday. Sixty thousand were expected. More than 300,000 turned up.
Among them were the seminarians of the Pontifical Scots College, myself included, only eight days before my class at the college were ordained deacons. It was a beautiful, fresh morning, one suffused with youthful faith and idealism, perhaps not unlike that of the young people who welcomed Christ into Jerusalem. The young people replied, “Hosanna!” to the question “Who is this?”
We listen to that question today as we accompany the Lord entering Jerusalem, on his way to the Passion and the Cross, and we reply with a full heart: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The Most Rev Leo Cushley is the Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh.
This is the last in our Lenten series written by bishops from across Britain