Sermon on Palm Sunday
6 April 2022
by a Dominican friar
“The weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Our Lord, in His short public ministry, spoke much about the kingdom of God. In the gospel of St Mark, His first words are: The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Many of His parables have been a description of this kingdom, and just before entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He has told the parable of the king and his ten servants. St Luke recounts that Christ told this parable because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately be manifested. The disciples supposed that the moment that Israel had been waiting for had come at last.
And, in a way, the instinct of the disciples was correct. Our Lord’s entrance on Palm Sunday into the city of Jerusalem is a kingly act. This is evinced, first of all, by His choice to ride on the colt of an ass. He is fulfilling a prophecy of Zechariah: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold thy King will come to thee, the just and saviour: he is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass. He comes in humility, but He comes as king. St John tells us that the disciples did not realise at the time that this prophecy was being fulfilled, but that when Jesus was glorified, that is, after the resurrection, they remembered that these things were written of him.
Nor is it only in Zechariah that we find a connexion between kingship and the foal of an ass. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we read that when King David lay dying, one of his sons, Adonias, tried to have himself declared as the next king. When news of this was brought to David, he roused his remaining strength, and gave orders that Adonias’s half-brother, Solomon, should be anointed and then placed on the king’s mule. We read: They set Solomon upon the mule of king David. And Sadoc the priest took a horn of oil out of the tabernacle, and anointed Solomon and they sounded the trumpet, and all the people said: God save king Solomon (3 Kings 1:38-39). Our Lord, by entering Jerusalem as He does, is indicating that He is the son of David for whom the people were waiting, the true Solomon, since Solomon means “peaceful”, and St Paul says of Jesus Christ that He is our peace.
What’s more, the people of Jerusalem, no doubt both inhabitants of the city and visitors who have come up for the Passover, moved by some supernatural inspiration, realise that their Messiah is here at last. If we read the gospels attentively, we see that they are not simply welcoming a great prophet or a great miracle-worker, but rather their legitimate king. Each of the evangelists records a slightly different phrase that the multitude used on that occasion, but each is a royal acclamation. St Matthew tells us that they said: Hosanna to the son of David; St Mark, that they said Blessed be the kingdom of our father David that cometh; in St Luke, it is Blessed be the king who cometh in the name of the Lord; St John reports the simplest and most explicit acclamation of all: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel.
Why do they lay their cloaks on the ground for the colt to walk over? This gesture is also an acknowledgement of Christ as king. Once again, it recalls an episode from the people’s history. In the Old Testament, when an idolatrous family was controlling the greater part of the country, the prophet Eliseus sent one of his followers to anoint an army officer called Jehu to be the new king. When Jehu tells his brother officers what has happened, we read that they made haste and taking every man his garment, laid it under his feet, after the manner of a judgement seat, and they sounded the trumpet and said: Jehu is king (4 Kings 9:13). Whether they realise it or not, the people in Jerusalem are now welcoming Jesus as king and judge, who will cast out the prince of this world.
It is a spontaneous outburst of joy which fills the holy city. No wonder that, as St John reports: The Pharisees said among themselves: Do you see that we prevail nothing? Behold, the whole world is gone after him. No doubt they are exaggerating: but we can almost hear the bitterness in their voice.
How is it possible, then, that the situation will change so quickly? That in a few days, Jesus will be alone before a Roman judgement-seat, and a large crowd will be shouting for His crucifixion? It is a testimony to the power of what today we call the State. Not for nothing did the beloved disciple see a beast with seven heads and ten horns coming up out of the sea, a beast that opened his mouth to blasphemies against God. This beast is an image for political power when it is in the hands of those who reject God’s word. St John says of this beast that the dragon, that is, Satan, gave him his own strength and great power. The threats that the State can issue, supported as they are by irresistible physical force, will usually be effective, at least to keep opposition under control. We need not suppose that those who welcomed Our Lord enthusiastically on Palm Sunday were the same people who were calling for His death on Good Friday. After all, St Luke tells us that despite the large crowd in the praetorium, there was also a great multitude of people who bewailed and lamented him as He made His way along the Via Dolorosa. But they had not been able to resist the Roman power.
How much more true is this when the dragon has also a second beast at his disposal! For St John, in his apocalyptic vision, saw another beast, coming up out the earth. He tells us that this beast had two horns, like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon. In other words, his appearance is much more attractive than that of the frightening first beast, but his voice and inspiration are the same. If the first beast represents the power of the State when it is openly turned against God, this second seems to represent religious power when wielded by those who have rejected God in their hearts. So Annas and Caiaphas, for example, claimed to be defending Israel against an impostor, but it was they who at heart were the apostates. In union with Pontius Pilate, therefore, they were easily able to put an end once and for all to the king of Israel.
Or so it seemed. For beneath all the agents, whether human or diabolic, who were determined to change Palm Sunday into Good Friday, there lay the providence of God, whose foolishness is wiser than men and whose weakness is stronger than men. He had determined, as St Paul says, that Christ should be crucified through weakness, that he might live by the power of God (2 Cor 13:4). Our king chose to reign from the wood, so that His victory might be the more glorious, and that we might learn that His kingdom is not of this world, but eternal. Yet nevertheless, we do well to imitate the multitude who laid their garments before His feet in Jerusalem, waving palm branches and singing their Hosannas. That is to say, we do well, according to our possibilities, to build up and manifest the kingdom of God, for that befits us as subjects of so good a king. And though our Palm Sundays may change into Good Fridays, we should never lose heart: for beyond everything there lies Easter, and the glory of the resurrection.