Well it occurred to me over the course of the previous week that in this blog I have strayed away quite a lot from the original purpose of the blog, which was to talk about the Bible and explain passages from there. Recently I have writing articles covering issues to do with Christian life and Church life. I love writing these articles. However I also want to focus more on discussing the Bible and Bible passages. Today is quite a good day to relaunch this focus as it is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the most important day in the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday, when we remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death.
What is special about Palm Sunday?
Palm Sunday is also connected to Easter itself. It commemorates the time when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, riding on the colt of a donkey. In the Bible account, this took place a few days before His death and resurrection. It is called Palm Sunday because a great crowd of people cut down branches from palm trees and waved them before Jesus to acknowledge the fact that He was a King. Some people also cast these palm branches to the ground, along with their own clothes, for Him to ride over.
The Triumphal Entry
This entry that Jesus made into Jerusalem riding this donkey is known as the Triumphal Entry (not the “Triumphant Entry”, as I used to mistakenly call it as a child!) “Triumphant” means when you are excited about a victory you have won in any sense, not only the military sense, and you want to show off about it. However, “Triumphal” means something related or similar to the Triumphs celebrated by Roman or Greek generals. In these a Roman or Greek general who had successfully waged war in perhaps some distant land, and had managed to conquer his opponents, would enjoy a victory procession through the streets of Rome, for instance, where the multitudes would be shouting out his name and he would be showered with public glory for his victory. In a way it is similar to the victory parade through the streets recently laid on for the British Olympic Team after their success in the 2012 Summer Olympics and for victorious football teams in their cities or countries when they win big tournaments. In just the same way there would be lots of pomp and ceremony, confetti, loud trumpets, and these victorious generals would ride in majesty, showing off the spoils of their victories, like Olympic athletes showing off their medals.
So this is what a Greek/Roman Triumph was like.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem it was like a Greek/Roman Triumph because He too was heralded by a great multitude of people. These people cried out as He passed by:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
The King of Israel!”
– John 12v13
This was done to fulfill prophecy, where in the book of Zechariah 12v15 it had been written:
“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
Behold your King is coming,
Sitting on a donkey’s colt”
So during the Triumphal Entry the people of Jerusalem recognised Jesus as the King of Israel.
Different aspects of the Triumphal Entry have different elements of symbolism attached.
I have traditionally been taught that the donkey that Jesus rode on symbolised His humility, and the fact that He was a servant leader, rather than the kind of majestic king who would ride a great horse. However, this article suggests that the donkey also represented a king who was coming in peace, where a horse would have represented a king coming to wage war. To corroborate this theory, the book of Revelation describes Jesus as riding on a horse to wage war (Revelation 19v11)
According to this same article, palm leaves were an established symbol of triumph and victory in the Roman Empire. Even in ancient Egyptian religion, the palm tree was carried in funeral processions and apparently represented eternal life. I’m not sure how much Egyptian symbolism might have influenced Hebrew or Jewish customs, even though the Hebrews did live in the land of Egypt for 400 years. However on this point of Egyptian symbolism, perhaps it is relevant that the Triumphal entry took place in the context of Passover, which originated while the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. So it could possibly be considered that the palm branches here in the Triumph somehow also alluded to the origin in Egypt of Passover which was shortly to be celebrated by all Jerusalem and was the reason why so many people were in Jerusalem in the first place, a little like the city of Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival! This idea also takes on greater significance when we remember that in this particular Passover Jesus was going to be killed, and yet He was also going to triumph over the grave. So this procession could have been considered in some light like a funeral procession for Jesus to mark His forthcoming death, but He was also to shine a new light on the topic of eternal life which so greatly enthralled the Ancient Egyptians.
Perhaps in this way, if this is not reading too much into the Ancient Egyptian death/resurrection symbolism around Palm leaves, or the Greco-Roman Triumph symbolism around these same leaves Jesus might have been showing that His death and resurrection would be relevant for all cultures, not only the Israelites. By this He might have been indicating that He was the Messiah not only for the Israelites, but who would give the Egyptians the eternal life they had dreamed of, and who would win the most spectacular victory imaginable, far surpassing anything that any Greek or Roman governor could have dreamt of. Once again, these governors dreamt of achieving immortality by their resounding victories. However Jesus turned the problem on its head by actually defeating death itself and coming back to life at His resurrection. There is a passage in the New Testament which I will link to when I remember what exactly it says. However if I remember correctly it seems to imply that different cultures seem to have elements of truth embedded in them. Certainly when I was a student of Greek/Latin culture, I marvelled that some of their literature contained ideas which to me seem messianic. For instance in the Aeneid written by Virgil approximately 20 years BC the person of Aeneas seems to be a messiah-figure, even going down into the underworld and eventually bringing salvation to the Romans. Some people might suggest from this that Christianity copied parts of Roman symbolism. However prophecies about the Messiah which referred to some of these aspects of the life of Christ far pre-dated Virgil’s writings. For instance Isaiah 53 written hundreds of years before the life of Christ and the writings of Virgil seems to describe the Messiah defeating death. First it talks about the Messiah dying (v8-9) “He was cut off from the land of the living…and they made His grave with the wicked, but with the rich at his death….” then after this (v10), it talks about Him being alive (again), and prolonging His days “He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days…He shall see the labour of His soul, and be satisfied” So is it that He is dead or He is not dead? I believe that this hints at the resurrection – yes He died, but yes He arose from death to prolong His days.
It is as if in Jesus all the misty unclear dreams of the whole world finally come true in ways which no-one could fully have predicted, but in ways which surpass anything that anyone could have imagined. In a way, that resoundingly makes sense for the Messiah of the whole world, no?
Palm leaves image by Peter Griffin from http://www.publicdomainpictures.net