Reflections on the Triumphal Entry

April 20th, 2011

By Dustin Miller, ’09 MDiv graduate

Matthew 21:1-11

I read of Christ crucified,
the only begotten Son
sacrificed to flesh and time
and all our woe. He died
and rose, but who does not tremble
for his pain, his loneliness,
and the darkness of the sixth hour?
Unless we grieve like Mary
at His grave, giving Him up
as lost, no Easter morning comes.

From “The Way of Pain” by Wendell Berry

While the rest of the world continues their lives on a normal schedule, Christians remember the story that takes us through a whole host of emotions. The week of the Passion of Jesus Christ is central to who we are. A story we have been adopted into. A story that says that only through death can we have life.

For us this Holy Week is about waiting.  We wait with fear and trembling. We wait knowing that the salvation shouts of “Hosanna” by the people lining the streets and the sidewalks, and the steps and pews of our churches on Palm Sunday quickly turn to tears of suffering. We wait in the knowledge that those who cry, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” will too soon change their chants to “Crucify him”.

We wait because we know we must remember. We wait because we need to know the story. We wait because, as Wendell Berry stated in the poem,  “Unless we grieve like Mary at His grave, giving him up as lost, no Easter morning comes.” We must resist the impulse to turn away, and quicken the resurrection. We must stay with the hard parts to get to the hope.

But the paradox is that this season is also about movement. This week spans two liturgical seasons, crossing over a bridge from Lent to Easter.  We move from Bethpage to Jerusalem, walking and riding along with our coming to reign King. We move from a city in turmoil to an upper room. We move from a meal of bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood.  We move from Jesus’ act of humility in foot washing to Christ’s humiliation on the cross.

This story in Matthew is also about how we get to where we are going. Jesus was all over the place during his teachings and journeys. To the north out of Galilee, to Nazareth where he was rejected, to Tyre and Sidon, to the west and finally down into Judea, where he turns towards Jerusalem.

Jesus changed our old ways into new ones throughout the narratives found in this gospel; transforming our old thoughts and habits into a new cycle of life.

To me, the joy of the streets that we associate with Palm Sunday, sounds more like a protest crowd asking a leader to save them. Today we think of Hosanna as a shout of praise, but the cry translates into a plea. Hosanna literally means help me, save me, I pray. With the current upheaval in the world today, the shouts of the streets in Jerusalem, in Egypt, and in Libya ring loudly on this Palm Sunday, as the innocent cry for an end to oppressive regimes all over the world. The triumphal entry is the culminating expression of the mistaken belief that Jesus was going to set up an earthly kingdom, restore Israel to the good old days, and overthrow the oppressive Roman empire. But following Jesus means following in death, not overthrowing the powerful through violence and power.

Followers of Jesus routinely got a bit mixed up between what they thought their messiah was going to look like and what Jesus actually did and taught. This might be one reason that responses to Jesus turned from positive to negative throughout the book of Matthew.

And who can blame them?

The triumphalism found in this narrative would have felt familiar to the people in Jerusalem. Often, the ruling Roman occupiers would have extraordinary displays of military power down the streets of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem was brimming with travelers and pilgrims during the high holy days of Passover the Romans would do this to keep the people in check.

Jesus does not come with the war chariots, or the white stallion. Jesus chooses a donkey for his ride. The world that expected a king to save them must have started asking questions. Jesus refuses to be controlled by the hopes of a nation, refuses to be persuaded by the demands and fears of a people who wanted things to go back to a better time.

As he trots into Jerusalem, Jesus exposes what is behind the idea of earthly power for what it really was. The vicious cycle of death and violence did not need another round. It needed to be transformed. Instead Jesus offers a new way of seeing God’s kingdom. Jesus forever redefines what it means to be king, Lord, and messiah. Jesus submits. But in the end that doesn’t quite live up to our expectations. We want change now.  Jesus transforms the life-taking violence that the people wanted and offered them a new way. A way that leads to the cross.

As we walk with Jesus in our lives, we will go to places where we would have never dreamed of going. Walking with Christ to Tyre and Sidon could mean going to the places where our culture says we’re not supposed to be. Walking with Jesus means that we are going to be misunderstood, means that we are going to have some cuts and bruises along the way. But ultimately we do not walk with Jesus down the streets of Jerusalem because we want to change the world. We walk because Jesus is Lord.

I urge us to live in the paradox that is our story. This great drama that is unfolding is the path to the cross, but is also a path where we meet our savior over and over. Through the bread and cup, through the washing of feet, through the darkness and into the light. The story that we are re-living is our story, the story of the unexpected, the story of Jesus bursting into our world, re-shaping it, transforming it to make all things new.

We must live in this paradox; that our movement is really just an exercise in waiting. We wait because this time is not our time, but that we are made participants in God’s time. We wait for the unexpected, for the blind to see, for the dead to rise. We wait because that’s what followers do. “Unless we grieve like Mary at His grave, giving him up as lost, no Easter morning comes.”

This blog post is adapted from a sermon preached at Cincinnati Mennonite Church, 4-17-11. Dustin Miller is a ’07 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate. It is cross-posted from Work and Hope:Finding Christ in the Church