After many centuries of Islamic rule, Jerusalem was captured by the forces of the British Empire in 1917. General Allenby made a decision to enter the city on foot rather than on the horse of a conqueror. It was intended as a gesture of respect for a place considered holy by the three great monotheistic religions.
Luke’s story is now approaching a climax and the entrance gospel of Palm Sunday opens with the words, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. Luke presents the life and ministry of Jesus as a journey to this city in which the definitive events of our salvation will take place. Allenby certainly knew of the entry of Jesus on a colt, some nineteen hundred years before his own. Matthew specifies that it was a donkey: a humble animal for the un-royal king of the Universe. Gradually, however, any glory felt by Jesus will twist and contort into humiliation, torture and finally death.
The passion narrative of the third Evangelist is proclaimed this Sunday. Each of the four accounts has its own particularities. Luke alone, for example, introduces the figure of Herod, a travesty of true kingship, sensation-seeking client of the Romans who dresses Jesus up in cast-offs from his gorgeous wardrobe. Later, the soldiers will vie for Jesus’s own clothes.
And only Luke recounts the dialogue with the two criminals (Matthew and Mark specify that they are robbers, while John says merely others). This part of the narrative is stylized and suggestive; it turns on the question of identity and its implications, and is redolent of cynicism and mockery. The rulers say: if he is the Christ of God …; the soldiers: if you are the King of the Jews …; one of the criminals: are you not the Christ? And all three, in an insistent litany, urge him to reject his own message of self-sacrifice: let him save himself … safe yourself … save yourself. If Jesus was tempted, he must have found new strength in the moral integrity of the other criminal: this man has done no wrong.
So now we too enter into the drama of Holy Week, riding the donkey of our own faith: is that beast robust enough to bear us? Will we be distracted and deafened by the shouts and clamour of daily life? Notably, there are no waving palm branches in Luke, just garments spread on the road! Will we follow Jesus at a distance, or jostle to be closer, helping Simon to carry the cross by courageously carrying our own? Will we have time to ponder these Scriptures and in them see the face of the Christ of God?
Fr Edmund Power, osb