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James Tissot, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem
This coming Sunday will be Palm Sunday in the Church’s western calendar, when we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The day will also mark the beginning of our observance of Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord.
In James Tissot’s painting (above), look at the crowd of excited people he portrays, who await and greet Jesus’ entry into the Holy City. Two things are obvious about the arrival of this rabbi from the north in Jerusalem. We notice the huge and enthusiastic crowd. And, we notice the object of their attention, Jesus, who is riding on a donkey. At first, we naturally assume an affinity between the crowd and Jesus. The crowd is joyful about Jesus precisely because he is the answer to their questions, and the apparent solution to their concerns. Who he is seems to fit neatly with who they are, and with where they want to go. After all, who wouldn’t be happy when long-nurtured hopes and expectations are about to be fulfilled.
As Matthew describes the scene, the crowd responds to Jesus’ arrival in two ways, both of which evoke historic precedent. We learn from 2 Kings about the followers of Jehu. When they learn he has been anointed king, they spread their cloaks for him to walk on. And in 2 Maccabees, we learn how Judas Maccabaeus was greeted upon arriving in Jerusalem, after defeating Israel’s enemies. The people honored him by waving palm branches in the air. To clinch the point, Matthew want us to know that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowd’s dramatic response was a fulfillment of God’s word through the prophets: “”Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
In other words, as Matthew describes Jesus’ arrival in the city, the crowd’s greeting of him suggested a similar hope, that he might vanquish the repressive powers causing God’s people to suffer. This Nazarene might be the one to make God’s Kingdom present in their time. These observations can help us appreciate how Jesus was greeted when he entered Jerusalem, and how he was viewed soon after. For, like so many leaders in history, he was the object of an immense amount of hopeful projection. And yet, he did not arrive as a warrior on a horse.
Look again at this crowd in Tissot’s wonderful painting of Jesus’ arrival. How many in this crowd are looking directly at him? And of those, how many actually see him, and for who he is rather than for what he represents among their pre-existing desires? Look at how many in the crowd are carried away by the moment. They are excited by imagined possibilities, rather than by the Kingdom concretely at hand. This situation is not merely of historical interest, nor is it primarily about other people, living at another time. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is also about us. His arrival invites us to consider our own hopes and expectations as we greet Him with palms and walk along beside him this Holy Week.
This image is from James Tissot’s painting, The Entry Into the City. I am indebted to N.T. Wright for the specific references to earlier biblical precedents regarding the way Jesus was greeted upon his arrival in Jerusalem.