On one of my first trips to Greece when I was in my 20’s was to Ioannina, a town is the Northwest, visiting my great Aunt Mary. Thea Mary as, as I called her, wanted to take us to a local wax museum so we hopped into my rental car and started out on the winding dusty roads through the countryside. Roads that had existed for centuries some as winding livestock trails and others as straight Roman engineered highways like the Via Egnatia. Near the museum we were approached a crossroad and saw another car was coming towards us at a slight angle from another direction. As we approached the centre, the point where the road crossed, we both began to accelerate, we both sped up heading for that one point where the roads crossed wanting to be the first. At one point other driver and I both looked over at each other and made eye contact and both being Greek males, we simultaneously accelerated, determined to be the first ones there. My 80 year old aunt was clutching her cane and the holding the Jesus strap on the car as she yelled out things in Greek I never expected to hear cross her lips as both cars hurtled into the intersection at the same time.
The point of the story is not simply to illustrate the driving habits of Greek men, but of the image of two forces relentlessly approaching each other on a collision course.
On the date of the event that we celebrate as Palm Sunday, there was also a collision set to occur centred on the Fortress Antonia, seat of the Roman Governor Pilate, and the Jewish Temple Mount, which were next to each other in the north central part of Jerusalem. On that day two opposing forces were converging on that central place. Two columns moving inexorably towards that centre. It was a time of collision between two cultures, two value sets, two ways… one a way of life and one of death.
Of the two processions that entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday; the one, which we focus on was Jesus’. However, according to some scholars, Jesus’ was not the only Triumphal Entry that would have occurred just before Passover.
Every year, the Roman governor of Judea would ride up to Jerusalem from his coastal residence in the west, kind of like you all who have residences on Bowen, Mayne or the Sunshine Coast come back to Vancouver. Like the Roman governors of Judea before him, Pilate lived in Caesarea by the sea. In other words, Pilate spent most of his time at his beach house. He would arrive specifically to be present in the city for the Jewish Festival of Passover,— which swelled Jerusalem's population from its usual 50,000 to at least 200,000 to make sure the Subjects didn’t get any ideas. Pilate would enter through the West Gate riding a white stallion caravanning with his entourage of Roman officers, entertainers, cooks, cup bearers and other assorted Smithers. People would line the streets when the governor would come in all of his imperial majesty to remind the Jewish pilgrims that Rome was in charge. They could commemorate their ancient victory against Egypt if they wanted to, but the reality was, that in the present-day it was Borg time and resistance was futile; because Rome had assimilated Israel. Pilate is the representative of Caesar, the face of Rome in Israel, so when he arrives, people notice. People cheer. People respect his authority, and there is evidence that people threw down cloaks and palms as Pilate paraded in.
Marcus Borg (no relation) and John Dominic Crossan describe Pontius Pilate's imperial procession like this: "A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot solders, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful."
According to Roman imperial belief, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome; he was the son of god. Since Pilate was the Emperor’s proxy, for the Jewish people subjugated by Rome, Pilate's procession was both a potent military threat and the embodiment of a rival theology that stood in opposition to their beliefs. This was a procession that said Might makes Right. Peace comes through Victory. Resistance is futile.
Juxtapose that with another procession entering via the Eastern gate known as the Golden Gate or the Gate of Mercy. It is through this series of two gates that the Messiah is prophesied to enter to the Temple Mount when he arrives to bring redemption to the Jewish nation
It’s through here that Jesus enters. Rather than a war horse, he’s riding a donkey. He doesn’t travel with an entourage but with fishermen and women. He is a nobody from the Outer Rim of the Empire. The Triumphal Entry of Jesus was in the words of some, a protest of the sort that mocked the Roman display of Pilate and they offered a different world-view.
Mark's Gospel appears to suggest that Jesus planned a deliberate counter-processions we heard that he had made arrangements to procure a donkey to ride on when he arrived. As Pilate clanged and marched his imperial way into Jerusalem from the west, Jesus approached from the east, looking (by contrast) ragtag and absurd. His was the procession of the powerless, the marginalized and the vulnerable. Borg and Crossan remarked, "What we often call the triumphal entry was actually an anti-imperial, anti-triumphal one, a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor entering a city on horseback through gates opened in abject submission.” It was a statement that might doesn’t make right and that peace doesn’t come through victory but through justice, that all are welcome, power is to be shared and all are beloved.
Elsewhere, Crossan notes that Jesus rode "the most unthreatening, most un-military mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her." Against the mighty power of Rome, Jesus comes riding in on the colt of an ass. Jesus was drawing on the rich, prophetic symbolism of the Jewish Bible in his choice of mount. The prophet Zechariah predicted the ride of a king "on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Some of the people understood what he was saying and they welcomed him like a conquering hero; waving their palms as if Jesus was about to lead them to victory; knowing all the while that the way Jesus offered was dangerous. Others misunderstood Jesus, and waved their palm branches hoping against hope that Jesus had some plan up his sleeve to save them from Rome; some secret army ready to ride in behind him and conquer their oppressors. But I suspect that there were some in that crowd who waved their branches and shouted their hosannas mocking this so-called Messiah, knowing all the while where this madness would lead. He would be the nonviolent king who'd "command peace to the nations."
This imagery of these opposing columns recounts the struggle we witness today in our world as opposing world views collide. We see this every day. As we journey through Holy Week we will see these two forces are colliding in the events we celebrate throughout the week.
We are poised on the precipice of Holy Week. God’s plan for rescuing creation is reaching its climax. Which parade are we cheering for? Where is our allegiance, Empire or God? Who’s voice do we follow? Do we compromise values in the name perceived stability or safety? Where do we believe Peace comes from, Victory or Justice?
Jesus is marching relentlessly forward; God’s plan for salvation rushes along ready to catch us in the mystery of the moment. Over the next few days we will reenact...we will live these moments with our Lord. The darkness of some of those moments may seem daunting...down right frightening. But we can’t get to the resurrection without going through the crucifixion. Regardless of what impediments are thrown up. In spite of the apparent overwhelming situations in the world the Gospel cannot be stopped. Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Giving ourselves in service to him brings the freedom and reconciliation...the healing and wholeness that cannot be obtained anywhere else. Like a thundering avalanche of water the Good News is exploding in our world and in our lives...today!
God’s justice will be done, is being done. God is coming, is here! The cry of Hosanna, “save us” Son of David was heard and is being answered. The new creation we long for is in the process of being born and with it comes joy, and peace, and justice for all. Come Lord Jesus, Come!