We’ll begin with an invitation to Holy Week from Seasons of the Spirit:
Steadfast God, it has been a long journey.
We have been with ancestors in the desert
and sought you in unexpected places.
We have left footprints in the sand
and our souls in the wilderness.
The pilgrimage has been long
but promise and hope run deep in our faith tradition.
Now the long shadow of the cross
and the footsteps of Jesus
find us waiting at the gates of Jerusalem.
We have arrived.
Yet it seems the journey is still not complete;
there is a deeper journey still to make.
This Lenten wandering has been just the beginning.
The greatest story is still to be told.
Come let us gather at the gates of the city;
the crowds are preparing to enter.
(Adapted from Seasons of the Spirit, Lent/Easter 2013, pg.96)
“Come let us gather at the gates of the city; the crowds are preparing to enter.”
These words have been echoing in my thoughts this week as I have been trying to imagine what it must have been like for the people who were arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover; the most holy of Jewish festivals.
The day was most likely hot, the roads dusty, the travellers weary from their long journey by foot – some from as far as a hundred miles away. There would have been physical tiredness, yes, but also the energy and excitement generated from being at the gates of their destination for a very special festival of their faith tradition. People would likely have been greeting others as they travelled, catching up on news and sharing their experiences of life. There would most likely have been talk about an itinerant teacher, and healer, that many thought might be the long expected messiah. Stories would have been told and re-told about this man named Jesus. Jesus, it was said, had been travelling in the countryside gathering ever increasing numbers of followers with his stories of God’s kingdom and his tender and compassionate actions that brought healing to those who were desolate. It was said that he didn’t care if you were rich or poor, Jewish or Gentile, man or woman. He said that everyone was beloved in God’s sight and that everyone had the power to live God’s kingdom into being here and now. It was said that Jesus had an extraordinary presence and that to be near him was to feel the presence and love of God. People were transformed who saw him and heard his stories and even those who hadn’t seen him in person, but had talked with others who had seen him, were touched by his tenderness and by the powerful wisdom of his stories.
It was said that Jesus had been seen in Bethany, a mere two miles from Jerusalem, and that he was definitely planning to come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. He had travelled with an ever-increasing band of followers one hundred miles from Nazareth, in Galilee, to Jerusalem. The massive crowds waiting to move through the Eastern gate of Jerusalem may have wondered if they might catch a glimpse of him.
I imagine it may have been a bit chaotic with people trying to keep track of children, and belongings, as they travelled along the crowded pathway. And then, to add to the commotion, there was a sudden stirring of the crowd and excited voices as a rider on a donkey appeared at the top of the Mount of Olives. The man, mounted on a donkey, was surrounded by people moving with him and placing cloaks and palm branches on the path before him and chanting and cheering him on his way. No one would have missed that this was a procession. Even from a distance they could see that. And, as they watched the figure riding on a donkey they would have reminded each other that the prophet, Zechariah, had said that Jerusalem would rejoice when, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)
It must have been like a miracle to the people gathered. Could it be that this man, riding on a donkey, was the messiah? Was Jesus, the one everyone was talking about, the one who would liberate them from the domineering forces of tyranny that was the Roman Empire? And so the crowd at the bottom of the hill, close to the city gates, took up the chanting that surrounded the procession coming down the hill, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38)
By the time Jesus was close to the entrance to Jerusalem the crowd was practically in a frenzy. There were Pharisees in the crowd. They were members of the religious leadership of Jerusalem. They were concerned that Roman soldiers, garrisoned in Jerusalem to keep the crowds under control during the Passover celebrations, would use force at the slightest provocation and that many could be hurt or killed. With this in mind, when Jesus reached the place where they were standing, the Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Jesus answered them, “I tell you, if these [crowds] were silent, the stones would shout out.”(Luke 19:39-40)
Jesus’ fate was set in motion, the crowd would not be subdued, and he proceeded to the Temple as planned before resting with his disciples, telling stories, and sharing a meal with them.
It is at this point that the story as told in the Gospel of John diverges from the telling of the story in Luke’s Gospel that has been our focus this morning. In both Gospel accounts, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey a symbol of a prophecy fulfilled but also a symbol of the humility that was one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ leadership. In the telling of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, Luke focuses on the sacred act of sharing a meal in community. For John, the central focus of the meal is the humble, yet sacred, act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. (John 13:3-5) John emphasizes the importance of this act by emphasizing that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet during supper-time rather than simply as an act of hospitality upon the arrival of their place of gathering. Jesus was setting an example of servant leadership for his disciples. He realized that he would soon die and he was preparing his disciples to continue his ministry. He also realized they did not fully understand what the future would bring so he assured them by saying, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7) Jesus knew that after his death his disciples would remember his words and actions and respond by following his example of service to others.
It is this simple experience of Jesus’ servant ministry that is the focus of Maundy Thursday worship services that take place in many churches, the day before Good Friday. The word Maundy comes from the Latin word, mandatum, meaning mandate or command, and refers to the new commandment that Jesus gave his disciples to “love one another” in word and in action. (John 13:34) Jesus set an example of service with an ethic of love motivating and compelling that service which he wanted his disciples to remember and continue to practice.
At this time in our Christian calendar, it is tempting to want to move from the excitement and celebration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, on what we now call Palm Sunday, and skip the difficult reality of the events of Holy Week and go directly to Easter Sunday. I encourage each of you, this year, to attend our Good Friday worship service. Good Friday offers the opportunity to have a reflective time together, with readings and choral music, concluding with a Prayer of Hope that will lift our spirits and our eyes to the vision of Easter Sunday.
As we walk together into this Holy Week we pray that our eyes will be set on Jesus. As we walk in his footsteps we remember and give thanks for the power of his love and his trust in God. And so, we pray…
Gracious God, who bids us to follow Christ,
we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph,
welcomed with palms and shouts of praise.
Guide us through this Holy Week
and awaken within us the stirrings of hope,
that trusting in your faithfulness
we may be healed and transformed,
daring to love in your name.
(Living the Christ Life, pgs. 134 & 137, adapted)