I am not exactly at the cutting age of contemporary culture, by reasons of age and disposition, but I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the term “flash mob.” Thus, while attending the Palm Sunday Mass at my parish last night, and in particular reflecting upon St. Mark’s description of events leading up to the procession, it occurred to me that this street celebration was not a spur of the moment thing, but a pre-arranged and reasonably well orchestrated event that stands on its own two feet as a significant New Testament event. To refer to the Palm Sunday procession, as we often do in parish life, as the kickoff to Holy Week probably does not do it Biblical justice.
Mark’s Gospel, historically the first of the Gospels, drops more than hints; it flat out gives details of key elements of the planning. In 11: 1-7 Jesus initiates the event by instructing two disciples to fetch a specific beast of carriage, a colt. That the disciples have little difficulty finding the colt, and that the apparent owners release a valuable animal at the mere mention of Jesus’ name, strongly suggest earlier negotiations, conceivably by Jesus himself. Verse 11:7 describes the disciples draping the animal with their own cloaks, indicating a kind of dignified enhancement of Jesus not previously initiated by him in his public ministry.
Verse 11:8 is particularly intriguing; while many people spread their cloaks before Jesus, others “spread reeds which they had cut in the fields.” Obviously there was an expectation of a special event, which leads to inevitable questions such as who planned this event in the first place and what was it supposed to signify. The cry of the crowd gives some information: Jesus is honored as “he who comes in the name of the Lord” and “blessed is the reign of our Father David to come!” The nature of these exclamations is futuristic and apocalyptic. This parade has something to do with a radical and fast approaching future event. There is very little indication in Mark that this has much to do with the Romans, let alone call for armed revolt; in the very next chapter Jesus defends paying taxes to Caesar. No, this is a religious event and in a very real sense the target here is the religious establishment.
Why did Jesus orchestrate this event as he did? The 520 B.C. Book of the Prophet Zechariah, 9:9ff begins an intense and dramatic prediction of the triumphant appearance of the Messiah concluding in what the NAB calls “the final assault of the enemy on Jerusalem, after which the messianic age begins.” Of great interest is Zechariah Chapter 14, which describes the final battle in great detail. And from where does the Messiah launch the culminating cosmic battle? The Mount of Olives, the very same place from which Jesus begins his solemn entry into Jerusalem.
So it may be that Jesus appropriated the prophetic tradition, and his planned procession was a visual statement that he had come to fight the saving Messianic battle once and for all in Mother Jerusalem, let the chips fall where they may. Certainly Mark portrays Jesus in a combative mode. In 11:11 he reconnoiters the Temple Precinct like General Lee studying the landscape of Gettysburg. In 11:12-14 he curses an unproductive fig tree (symbolic of temple indolence?) In 11: 15-17 Jesus physically storms the money changers in the Temple (and the authorities who condoned this). Mark 11:27-33 is a nasty confrontation with temple authorities on his authority to do what he is doing. Chapter 12: 1-13 is a cutting parable (the unworthy tenants) predicting the destruction of the bad caretakers of God’s vineyard. In 12: 13-17 Jesus deftly derails current priestly practice with his famous “render unto Caesar” proclamation. In 12: 18-27 Jesus puts to scorn the Sadducees, who attack belief in resurrection after death (the tale of the unfortunate seven times widowed woman.) His attacks upon the temple hierarchy continue through Chapter 12. Chapter 13 is devoted almost entirely to “The Supreme Tribulation,” or what we might refer to as the end of the world (and obviously the end of a stagnant priestly cabal.)
It is quite clear, then, that Jesus has begun the final Messianic battle. His procession into Jerusalem may have rattled the priests (Luke 19:39 is quite explicit about the Temple’s reaction to the procession), but his relentless attacks upon a corrupted priesthood led his enemies to dispatch him as soon as possible. So while it is fair to say that the Palm Sunday procession, so to speak, was in a real way the first concrete act in the drama of Calvary, it may be even more accurate to think of it as a call to battle, the decisive first charge in the cosmic battle of the Messiah to restore the purity of the faith of Abraham and Moses by ushering in the eternal conquest of a lasting Messianic Kingdom.
As the Jerome Biblical Commentary and other sources explain, the solemn procession is not just the beginning of a “holy week.” It is the first charge in the three-day onslaught.
On My Mind