The mid-century liturgical commission that revised the ceremonies for Holy Week was being subtly tongue-in-cheek or deliberately ironic when the members determined that Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday should be described as a “triumph.”
Only to the very discerning eye of faith could Jesus be said to enter the Holy City in “triumph” on the first day of that fateful week. On the contrary, Jesus’ return to Jerusalem was to have disastrous consequences for himself and for the apostolic band. Jesus passed through the city gates certain of betrayal, abandonment, brutality and death. To the unbelieving eye, the first Palm Sunday was no triumph.
Surely, Jesus was aware of the ill treatment that awaited him in the capital city. St. Luke warns his readers that Jesus turned his face “resolutely” toward Jerusalem and determined to carry out the Father’s challenging will there. The apostles, too, in their simple way, intuited the problems that Jesus faced in returning to Judea.
After the death of Lazarus, St. Thomas valiantly argued with his fellow disciples, “Let us go up to Jerusalem also and if needs be die with him.” So everyone knew what was in store for Jesus as he passed from the Mount of Olives through the Golden Gate into the hubbub of the Holy City. The procession that commenced Holy Week was no triumphal march reflective of grand opera. If anything, Palm Sunday bordered on the farcical.
Recall that while Jerusalem was a backwater capital of a third-rate nation, it still was occupied by Roman troops. This city, not much bigger than a large village, would have been accustomed to imperial troops parading through its streets arrayed in scarlet cloaks, feathered helmets, gleaming breastplates and riding on mighty elephants, towering camels and powerful steeds. Troops by the hundreds would draw awe from the curious spectators as Rome flexed its muscles before this Jewish minority. A people that were used to Rome’s legions were hardly going to be impressed by a Galilean preacher seated on a donkey while street urchins waved palm branches along the route. It would take a great deal of fanciful thought to turn the tawdry display of the original Palm Sunday into the triumphal pageant of today’s modern liturgical observance. Yes, it would require a great deal of fanciful thought — or a great deal of faith.
To the man in the street, the first Palm Sunday display was almost a joke. The group included a carpenter, a few fishermen, several children, maybe even some cats and dogs slowly worming their way into this regional capital. But to the man of faith, this demonstration reflected the almighty Son of God, the Savior of mankind, the awaited Messiah, who deliberately divested himself of all earthly power — no elephants, no camels, no troops, no swords, no shields — and chose to rely solely on the will and power and plan of God the Father Himself. Jesus chose purposely to play the fool in order to drive home to believers evermore that true power, true strength, true might derives not from the trappings of imperial panoply but rather from the resolution to carry out God’s will.
The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was indeed a triumph. But it was not a triumph that relied on cheering crowds and fresh palm fronds. The triumph on Palm Sunday was entirely an interior triumph, a triumph derived from knowing that one was doing God’s will. Betrayal, harassment, agony, disgrace, heartbreak and death would certainly result from Jesus’ return to Jerusalem. But the perfect accomplishment of God’s salvific will, leading to a victory over sin and the redemption of mankind, would also result from Jesus’ determination to enter solemnly into the ancient Jewish capital.
The Palm Sunday liturgy is an invitation to the church of every generation to realize that true victory and true success can rarely be perceived with the human eye alone. A true triumph comes only from a total correspondence with the revealed will of God, a feat that might have to wait for eternity to be recognized.