The Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem - also called Palm Sunday - is a feast commemorated by the Church on the sixth Sunday of the Great Lent that precedes the Sunday of the Pascha. Bishops Ambrose of Milan and Epiphanius of Cyprus mention it in their writings. Fourth-century vaults bear its depictions. As foretold by the Old Testament prophets, the people of Israel expected the Messiah to bring them salvation. He would come to Jerusalem on Pascha, the day preceding the annual celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from their captivity in Egypt. At the time, the Kingdom of Judah was then under the sovereignty of Rome, and many hoped that the Messiah would liberate them from foreign oppression.
The people had already heard about the resurrection of Lazarus and gave Christ a solemn welcome to Jerusalem. The city and its environs were bulging with pilgrims. As the historian Joseph Flavian wrote three decades later, the Roman Procurator ordered a count of the lambs slain in Jerusalem at Pascha. He found that the number approached a quarter million. Knowing that the Jews typically sacrificed one lamb per every ten celebrants, he estimated their total number to approach 2.5 million in Jerusalem alone. As the law stood, every adult Jew residing within 30 kilometres of Jerusalem had the duty to come to the capital of Israel for the Pascha. But this feast drew worshippers from all over Palestine and almost every corner of the world. We can assume, then, that the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem was a most dramatic moment. People laid their clothes under his feet. They cut the branches of palms and waved them above their heads, greeting Christ as their King.
But Jesus had not come to Jerusalem to reign there. He only wanted to be King in people's hearts. He made it clear that he had come to seek peace, not make war. In the Middle East, entering a city on a donkey was a way to show peaceful intentions; and riding on horseback was a gesture of war. The horse was a vehicle of war and the donkey of peace. So Christ arrived in all humility on a donkey. Did Christ have any royal ambitions? Yes, but only to the kingdom of the world. He made it clear that he had not come to destroy, but to love; he was not there to condemn but to help, and not with armed force, but with the power of His love.
Palm trees do not grow in Russia, so it has been a long-standing custom among the faithful to bring to church branches of willows, a tree that puts forth leaves earlier than most other vegetation. As they stand at the all-night vigil on the eve of the feast, the worshippers meet the Lord walking invisibly in their midst, welcoming Him in His triumph over hell and death. They hold out the young branches of the willow, flowers and lighted candles.
Why do we still celebrate Palm Sunday with such great joy, as if we were standing with the people of Jerusalem to meet Christ in person? Why do we chant "Hosanna", as they did? We chant and rejoice because Christ has reigned and was acknowledged as King, if only of one faraway city. He taught about the Kingdom of God and His future enthronement there. Yet six days before the Pascha. He revealed His kingdom on earth; he made it visible and called on the people of Jerusalem and, by extension, all of us to become citizens of this Kingdom of Christ and subjects of this humble King with no earthly power or might but with all-powerful love.
Protoprebyter Alexander Shmemann
Congratulations on the feast of the entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. Earthly Jerusalem is a city on the map, a geographical location in which we are not physically present. But we all know about the heavenly Jerusalem, where we all want to be. The new Israel are people who chose to follow Christ. By walking out of Egypt, they left behind the world that lay in evil and set out to look for their promised land.
Like these biblical people, we, too, are walking across the desert. We are in a city of two million people, but we are still in a desert. Only rarely can we hear a word that brings life to our spirits, or see life in a stranger's eyes. The world is like a desert. Sin has reduced people’s souls to ashes and sent them looking for a way to fill the spiritual void. They look at the window shops and the billboards. Here is one that advertises a tour to some foreign land. It promises to fly you to the other side of the world, let you lie in the sun, take you shopping, and even let you try some unusual food - all to fill the void within. But this does not help. Noone can fill one’s life with meaning except God.
And so we are on our way to meet Christ. We are going to Jerusalem in Heaven. We have come to Church to begin a new life with God and to defeat death. Defeating death is our foremost task as Christians. We know how fast it is approaching. Doctors and medicines can delay its coming for a while, but what next? Death is approaching, and we are tasked with defeating it. There is only one Doctor who will help. He will heal our immortal souls. People have lost touch with Him; they have turned paradise into a waste dump; they are heading for the graveyard, and are craving for some reassurance and good news.
They cannot find any of these in the world, but the Church has plenty to offer. On Palm Sunday, the people are holding pussy willow branches. They are like small children. They are doing it for God! How could one not be a small child to stand there and shout: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11: 10). But one can look at it a different way. Is not it a waste of time? Would not we have spent it better by making money, or relaxing in front of the television with the choice of fifty channels or so? Or doing something exciting, going out, or simply having a good time? Instead, they are standing there like little children, singing glory to God, living with Him. Will they ever grow up? The wise and strong of this age do not need Christ. They are self-sufficient and autonomous.
But we have nothing of ours, so we are seeking God. Look how weak men are without Him. Someone is having a special day, he is joyful and celebrating when suddenly he has a bad toothache. The holiday is over, and so is the celebration! A tiny vessel breaks in our brain, and here we are - lying flat on our bed, losing our memory and becoming speechless. Just as we are powerless on our own, our capabilities are infinite with Him! We can do anything because we have the living God in our hearts.
We have come here today to honour the living God, the God Who empowers and inspires. It is Him that we must learn from, serve and live with if we wish to defeat death. In only a week, we will become witnesses to His victory over death. We will hear the Church proclaim, "there is no more death!" The Apostle will say, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15: 55).
I wish that we could all share our rich gifts of joy and life with those who have not found their way to Church this year. I hope that with our whole lives we will show others the beauty of God. Let us speak with our hearts, not with our mouths as we preach it. Let us all have the Lord in our souls, for He has already shed on us all His love. We are inheriting His estate of everlasting life and His Divine blessing that purifies, sanctifies, and renews us. We are accepting this gift from God to be saved. Let us continue to thank Him for His unfailing love that he never stops giving us despite our unworthiness.
Now you and I might say, "If Christ came to Belarus, we would not shout to crucify Him; we would listen to Him.” We are wrong. We are human. Imagine how much we have corrupted our nature to have accepted the crucifixion, derision, and killing of our Lord. There would hardly be more than a handful of is today who will be willing to be servants to the King of Heaven and follow him through the end.
But Christians also realise that God's power is manifest in weakness ( 2 Corinthians 12: 9). Only a few days later we will hear in our readings how the same people who welcomed their Saviour, who glorified Him, spread their cloaks on the road and spread branches they had cut in the fields shouted, "Crucify Him!" (Luke 23: 21).
Disfigured by sin, human nature does not depend on ethnicity, political views, or climate. In this world, we have been taught to bow to earthly kinds and to reject the King of Heaven. He does not bring us the cheap imitations valued in this world, but the genuine gift of His love, tormented and crucified. Let us not shun it, but instead, let us keep looking for the truth and the fullness of our lives until we finally find them.
Let us be thankful to God for all His wonderful gifts to us!
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