Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Throughout this week, we remember and celebrate the acts of Jesus Christ by means of which God saved the world. The story of those acts is a Divine Comedy: after great sorrow comes a happy ending. And like most comedies, the story of Holy Week begins with the Triumphal Entry of our Hero (Mark 11:1-11).
Several details about that entry are worthy of note:
First, the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is a planned event. Verses 1-6 set the scene. Jesus instructs his disciples to go into the village ahead of them and retrieve a colt for him to ride. Although it is possible that Jesus had miraculous foreknowledge of where the colt would be, it is more likely that he had arranged for its use beforehand.
This is interesting, for throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has told people to keep quiet about his true identity as the Son of God and Messiah of Israel (e.g., 1:32-34, 44; 3:11-12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:29-30; 9:9-10, 30-32). But now, Jesus is casting aside all reticence about himself and openly declaring himself as “Lord.” Why now? We’ll come back to that question is a moment.
Second, the Triumphal Entry is a symbolic event. In verses 7-10, Jesus rides a colt that has never been written. Although Mark does not point out the messianic significance of Jesus’ action, Matthew 21:5 does: “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet [Zech. 9:9]:
Say to the Daughter of Zion,
“See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The crowds who witnessed Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem clearly understood what he was doing. Listen to the words they proclaimed, which are a theologically rich paraphrase of Psalm 118:25-26:
“Hosanna!” [meaning, “Save!”]
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
Hitherto reticent to openly proclaim his Divine Sonship and Messianic Kingdom, Jesus now speaks and acts clearly. No one witnessing this event – not the crowds, not the Temple leadership, and most definitely not the Roman overlords – will interpret it as anything other than a victorious king entering his capitol city.
And that brings us to our last point: The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is an ironic event. On the first Palm Sunday, no one seeing Jesus doubted that the Kingdom of God was imminent. Here was Jesus, the miracle-working, demon-exorcising, hypocrite-exposing preacher from Nazareth, finally exercising his rightful powers as Israel’s king. But, nearly two thousand years on, we no longer read the story with such naiveté. We know what happens to Jesus on Good Friday. The king’s Triumphal Entry becomes regicide. The crowds stop shouting, “Hosanna!” and start shouting, “Crucify him!” An inglorious end to a glorious beginning! (Of course, we should not forget that even this inglorious end is but the beginning to the most glorious ending!)
What we must realize is that Jesus planned the totality of this event all along, both the symbolism and the irony. He had been reticent to openly proclaim his Divine Sonship and Messianic Kingdom precisely because he knew that we would interpret those things in terms of what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory.” A king, according to that theology, always succeeds, always lives, always sends his enemies to their crosses. But Jesus proclaims what Luther called the “theology of the cross,” by means of which the king goes to the cross instead of his enemies and – this is most important! – for their salvation.
So yes, with the crowds, let us shout, “Hosanna!” for we desperately need to be saved. But let us not think that salvation comes easily to us. No cross, no crown – either for Jesus or for us.