Psalm 122:3 says: “Jerusalem is built as a city strongly compact; it is there that the tribes GO UP, the tribes of the Lord.” And so, there’s this imagery of Jerusalem as a city to which people go up. From whichever direction you’re taking to Jerusalem, you’re going up. Located 2400 feet above sea level, Jerusalem, the ancient city, remains the center of religious activities in the world. If we were to be in Jerusalem today, we’ll take part in the memorable event recalled today. We’ll stand with palm branches and wave as the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa rides a donkey into the city. The teaming number of pilgrims who participate in this time-honored annual ritual recall with great emotion the event that took place at that same road nearly 2000 years ago. From there too, one can see the Mount of Olives towering even higher by almost 300 feet. The Kidron Valley, also mentioned today is found between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. It is deep and dangerous, with peaks and valleys that, without question, would create the aura of the slips and tumbles, the highs and lows of the drama of salvation that we reenact today. Also, right at the base of the Mount of Olives is the Garden of Gethsemani, where Jesus sweat blood, the apostles slept, and the ultimate betrayal by Judas took place. A large surface rock at this garden has been used to form the sanctuary of the Church of All Nations to remind us that the love we celebrate today reaches to the ends of the earth.
The liturgical name for today is Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, juxtaposing the victory of redemptive love and the fatality of ancient pride. Marking the beginning of the Christian Holy Week after the long period of Lenten fast and prayer, the Church enters today the most important and sacred week in the life of believers when the entire event of salvation becomes real in Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.
Jesus enters as a triumphant king into his city, Jerusalem—the city of destiny. Yet there’s much less to indicate triumph. He chose to ride not a horse but a beast of burden. Roman military generals rode on horses when returning from successful expeditions. The donkey reflected the animal of the poor. The singing of Hosanna (in Hebrew: “Save us, we pray”), the spreading of cloaks and branches did not take his focus away from what awaited him.
The drama of his conviction, sentencing, inhuman treatment by the Jews and Roman soldiers that culminated in his death cannot fail to move the heart. Regardless how many times you’ve heard it, each time it is read, we feel our spirit moved. The death of the Lord was followed by earthquakes, tombs splitting open, and the raising of the dead, as heard in Matthew’s account. These events caused those hired to keep watch over him to cry, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” But the most important lesson would be the realization that Jesus needn’t suffer so grievously if we were righteous.
Hearing these words and looking at Jesus hung on the cross, we should see and sense the full gravity of sin. According to Sheen, a personal equation must be established between the crucifix and us, where each of us should read his or her autobiography. We see our pride in the crown of thorns, our lusts and carnality in the nail and the torn flesh, sins of avarice in the poverty and nakedness, our wandering from the path of goodness and forgetfulness of God in the pierced feet, our thievery in the riven hands, and our sins of alcoholism in the thirst.
God’s love and infinite mercy is also written there. The cross is the parchment on which it is written and Christ’s blood is the ink with which it is written. It is by his wounds that we’re healed, by his blood he ransomed us for God. There, right there on the cross, he forgave all our sins and nailed them finally. Our hearts are filled with wonder and gratitude at so great a gift.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo