I wish that all Christians knew the story of Holy Week. Indeed, I wish everybody, Christian or not, did. But Christians especially. It is the story that should shape our understanding of Jesus and thus our understanding of what it means to be Christian – of what it means to follow him, to follow “the way” that he revealed and embodied.
What most Christians know about Holy Week centers on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus’s death and resurrection. The former is commonly understood as payment for our sins. The latter is most often understood as the proclamation of life beyond death – that God not only raised Jesus from the dead, but will someday also raise us, or at least those who believe.
But there is so much more to the story of Holy Week. Not only is there more, but the more challenges and indeed negates the common understanding of Good Friday and Easter.
In this blog, I focus on what Christians call “Palm Sunday.” The story is familiar: as the week of Passover begins, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and people cheer him, shouting “Hosanna – blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Less well-known is the historical fact that a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. It happened every year: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover, the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals. With him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.
It is clear what Pilate’s procession was about. By proclaiming the pomp and power of empire, its purpose was to intimidate. But what about Jesus’s procession, his entry into the city?
As Mark, the first gospel to be written, tells the story, Jesus planned it in advance. It was not a last-minute decision, as if he decided to ride a donkey because he was tired or wanted people to be able to see him better.
And – this is the crucial connection – riding a donkey into Jerusalem echoes a passage from the prophet Zechariah.
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9.9).
That king, the passage continues, will be a king of peace:
“He will cut off 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).
Thus for Passover that year, two very different processions entered Jerusalem. They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world
The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation.
On Friday, the rulers of this world kill Jesus. On Easter, God says “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers that executed him.
Thus Palm Sunday announces the central conflict of Holy Week. The conflict persists. In words from St. Paul, the rulers of this world crucified the Lord of glory. That conflict continues wherever injustice and violence abound. Holy Week is not about less than that.