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Palm Sunday – A Tale of Two Processions

The journey to Jerusalem began in a small hamlet of Galilee. It was filled with exciting adventures, with plenty of twists and turns, ups and downs. It began with a sense of hope. It began not with those in power but with those on the fringes of society, struggling to get by each day.

Traces of it can be found by the Sea of Galilee where the peasant fishermen cast their nets. It is here, in this Herodian territory, Simon and his brother dropped their nets and Joined in. The invitation was so compelling that James and John couldn’t hold back either.

The call of the Galilean peasant, Jesus, “Come follow me, and I will make you fish for people” was compelling, but it was also a bit disturbing. After all these young men were supposed to continue family fishing business, not drop everything and follow the Galilean Rabbi.

But they did, leaving behind social and economic security tied to the family structure. It was a call into the unknown, into an alternative social practice that required not just a change of heart but a reorientation of social and religious life.

The call included a promise: those who forsake human security, including their families, will receive “a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–31). The invitation is to imagine a different reality, an all-encompassing community based not on natural ties but on discipleship. This new reality is grounded in the ground of all Being.

Many who watched him with cold, hard eyes witnessed new teaching. He taught them about the Kingdom of God. A Kingdom not as they already know, in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession. But a Kingdom which included a lame child, blind parents and demented souls. This Kingdom welcomed all who came, young and not so young, the lowly and the powerful, saints and sinners, strangers and outcasts, the sick and the healthy.

To their surprise He sought God’s Kingdom not among the healthy and whole but among the sick and sinners. His teachings unconventional. His actions unruly. When invited in the house of a village leader, he instead goes and stays in the home of a dispossessed woman.

And just when they want him to stay a bit longer he leaves them all by saying, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ He moves on to the neighbouring town only to be despised by the authorities. “The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’

But others say that the worst and most powerful demons are found not in small villages but big cities. Maybe that is where the entire demons he exorcised went, to Sepphoris, to Tiberias, or even to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is where he is found now, riding not on a royal chariot but a humble donkey.

The story is on the verge of climax. But just before the end, it takes a new turn—one last celebration of Palm Sunday. Perhaps a reason to pause and to peek into what is taking place in the city of Jerusalem.

On that first Palm Sunday, in 30 CE, there was not one, but two processions entered Jerusalem. One was a peasant procession, from the east of Jerusalem, where Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives. And the other was an imperial procession, from the west, Pontius Pilate at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.

The procession was preplanned. As Jesus approaches the city from the east at the end of the Journey from Galilee, he asks two of his disciples to go to the next village and get him a colt they will find there, one that has never been ridden, perhaps a young one. Once the colt is there, Jesus rides that colt down the Mount of Olives to the city where he found himself surrounded by an enthusiastic bunch of followers, who spread their cloaks, leafy branches and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Least to say that this demonstration is rooted in the prophetic tradition and uses the symbolism from the prophet Zechariah. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem, “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). The rest of the Zechariah passage gives us some details as to what kind of King he will be: “He will cut of the Chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10).

This King, who rides on the donkey, will banish war from the land – there will be no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Instead, he will command peace to the nations; he will be the prince of peace.

With this prophetic tradition in mind, we suspect if Jesus’ procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled Rome. In contrast, Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the Kingdom of God, which he has been preaching and enacting in the countryside. The two processions symbolize the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus’ life. As we know, the week ends with Jesus’ execution. And the Holy week is the storytelling about this confrontation. It is also an opportunity for us to pause and reflect………………………Whose side are we going to take? Are we on the side of Caesar, whose Kingdom embodies brutality and death or on the side of a humble Galilean who rides on the donkey?

We know whose side that same crowd took after few days when Jesus was in front of the Pilate. In the face of imperial power, their enthusiasm evaporated. They abandoned him and called for his crucifixion. Their Hosanna soon turned into a demand for blood and brutality.

While the temptation is to focus on positives, it is impossible to neglect the undercurrent of tragedy, of the impending crucifixion. Historians tell us that the entire city was in turmoil. People were clamouring to know who was gathering all of this attention. Since most of Jesus’ ministry was in distant Galilee to the north, those in Jerusalem would only have heard of him but not seen him.

But those who knew him exclaimed! “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,”. One can imagine the atmosphere in Jerusalem was electric. The whole city was charged with political and religious tensions. Not only were people rushing to see Jesus, but there were political radicals—the Iscarii—who were keen to set off a conflict between Jerusalem and Rome.

The story of Palm Sunday locates us all directly in the middle of life’s conflict. I am reminded of a German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who coined the idea of Being thrown into the world. In Being and Time, he locates human beings within the finitude of everyday existence. Human beings are not merely isolated individuals working for their own material benefit. Rather, we are part of a vibrant yet complex world.

According to Heidegger, we cannot exist independently of our relation to the world. We are delivered into the world we share and shape with others, for good or bad reasons. Our existence is grasped by the emotions we feel as a result of the conflict and chaos around us. These emotions reflect but also determine the very texture of the world in which we live.

It is true of Christianity as well. Christian faith is hardly a solitary one. Saint Augustine tells the story of Victorinus, professor of rhetoric at Rome. Victorinus had a lot of sympathy with Christianity, and used to read the Bible and Christian books. He would say to Simplician ‘You know I really am a Christian already.’ Simplician would reply ‘I will not believe it, nor will I rank you among Christians, until I see you in the Church of Christ.’ Victorinus would reply ‘Do walls make Christians?’ He kept the jest up for a long time, but in the end the professor came where he knew he belonged, and joined the mixed company of the Church of Rome.

Yes, it has always been so. Christian faith is more than a solitary faith. Christian spirituality might be personal but it’s not isolationist. It is deeply intertwined with the complexities of life. Palm Sunday is another reminder that Jesus steps into the centre of the conflict. He steps on a road to redemption, new life, forgiveness, transformation, love, hope, and most of all peace. In a violent and chaotic and backstabbing world, Jesus trots down the road of peace on a donkey.

In doing so, he sets an example for us to embrace realities amid life’s conflicts and complexities. Palm Sunday is the day Jesus shows us that he comes to us, to our city, to our home, to our families, to our lives, into our sickness. He comes to transform the love for power to the power of love. He comes not in a panoply of imperial power but on a humble donkey.

And so I leave you with the following questions: where are you in these two processions? Are you in the procession of God’s Kingdom? Or are you in the procession of power intent on killing that Kingdom?

Two Kingdoms. Two processions. Chariot or donkey?

Your choice!

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