"The next day the great crowd... took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
-- John 12:13
Every year as Palm Sunday ushers in the holiest week of the Christian year, I wonder how that first Palm Sunday crowd could have made such a rapid switch from cheering section to murderous mob in just five days. Five days was all it took between Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, and his agonizing march to crucifixion on Friday. Five days between the hosannas and the turncoat cries: "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
In today's fast-paced cyber-age I can imagine a similar crowd skipping to a few days after Palm Sunday and perhaps running the words together, no punctuation, no capital letters, to create the web site: hosannacrucifyhim.com. In fact, something similar occurred in Buryl Red's '70s-era musical on the life of Jesus, "Celebrate Life."
Near the end of this presentation the hosanna-shouting crowd leaves the stage and follows Jesus up the aisle to the back of the room. At first their hosannas resemble loud shouts, but as the procession nears the end of the aisle the noise level gradually becomes a whisper. Then the actors turn and, still whispering, follow their "King" back to the stage. But this time they take only a few steps before the whispers give way again to shouts, not of happy hosannas this time but to the cacophonous roar, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
Although this drama visualized the Palm Sunday-Good Friday transition as nothing ever had before, it did little to tell me the reason for such a radical act of betrayal. Some background reading, however, reveals that those who spread their garments and palm branches along the way to Jerusalem on that celebratory day may not have had the same concept about cheering a "king" as we do.
None of the events of that day was as spontaneous as we may think. Jesus didn't choose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey to display his humility, but to show his understanding of Jewish history. Donkeys were not always despised beasts or symbols of poverty, but a sign of nobility. If a king were going into battle or returning as a conqueror, he rode on a horse, but if he were coming in peace, he rode on a donkey.
Jesus' actions also were timed to coincide with Passover, when all Jews who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem were required to come to the sacred city for the observance. To estimate how many people were in the palm-strewing crowd, historians refer to the approximately quarter-million lambs purchased for a typical Passover rite, and to the assumption that one lamb represents a minimum of 10 people.
As commentator William Barclay observes, "This was more than an ordinary crowd both in numbers and in mood. These were a people full of religious expectations."
The actions of the crowd had precedents, too. Back when Israel was a nation with rulers of their own, it was customary to throw garments in the streets whenever a new king was chosen (II Kings 9:13).
Also, 150 years Jesus came to earth, when Simon Maccabaeus returned to Jerusalem after a victorious battle, the grateful people cut down palm branches to line the conqueror's way. And though through the evolution of language "hosanna" has become synonymous with "praise" for us, in the Hebrew the word means, "save now!"
In effect, the monstrous crowd was not so much worshipping Jesus because he was the king or conqueror they already had, but because they hoped he would soon become that ruling, conquering Messiah they had anticipated for so long.
In other words, on that triumphal Sunday, to these expectant people, nothing but a king would do.
But, Barclay continues, "The whole Palm Sunday picture is of a populace who misunderstood. It shows us a crowd of people thinking of kingship only in terms of conquest, and it was a conqueror's welcome they sought to give to Jesus. They never imagined the kind of conqueror he wished to be. They didn't understand that by coming in peace, he was the ultimate conqueror" (See John 14:27).
May we celebrate the life and death of that conqueror this week, not because he toppled an earthly enemy in an earthly place or an earthly time, but because his victory was individual and eternal. Then we can be a people full of religious expectations, too, as we await the celebration of the risen Lord.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.)
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