Passion Week begins with palms. Branches are cut from trees, hands are raised in praise, and the most important figure in history enters the greatest city in the first century for the most important week that’s ever been.
This unrecognized prince has a rightful claim to the throne of his people as the heir of their most celebrated king. And yet he rides in manifest humility, on the back of a donkey’s colt — like no other ruler in the first century, or the twenty-first century, would dare stoop to do.
And this, of course, is not the extent of his meekness and lowliness. He will stoop yet further this holy week, and then further still when he is “raised up” to the lowest of all places, to the utter shame and ignominy of a brutal public execution, even death on a cross.
The Glow of Palm Sunday
But for now, the week begins with the strange and wonderful glow of Palm Sunday. We feel the radiance of the coming king, ushered into the great city by crowds stirred for the arrival of a veritable dignitary. “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:11). In their excitement, they “spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road” (Matthew 21:8), and so give “Palm Sunday” its name.
Joy shines this Sunday — a joy, as we now know, that anticipates a supernova of gladness coming on the following Sunday. In the thrill of hope, the crowds rehearse the praises of Psalm 118, pining that perhaps this is, at long last, the great “Son of David,” the promised royal rescuer, riding into the Holy City to definitively save his people.
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Hosanna — a Hebrew declaration of adoration and delight — is the refrain for this triumphal entry.
Tinged with the Coming Pain
Still the light is tinged, even in the emotional highs of Palm Sunday. This is not yet his coronation at the right hand, seated on the throne of heaven. This is not the final triumph when heaven itself will descend and remake our fallen world — with all sorrow and pain, and every tear and enduring rebel, banished to outer darkness.
No, even in the throes of joy, the threatened authorities begin their diabolical plot. The humble king heals the blind and the lame (Matthew 21:14), and when the establishment sees “the wonderful things that he did . . . they were indignant” (Matthew 21:15). The burgeoning joy of the masses is the festering anger of the Jerusalem elite.
Joy Set Before the Man of Sorrows
Here on this Sunday we find, in microcosm, the joys and sorrows of the legendary week ahead. This initial clash with the authorities anticipates the coming conspiracy, the traitor that will emerge, the fearful disciples who will flee, and the sheer demonic wickedness that will descend upon the city and culminate in his death by sundown Friday.
And yet the joy of Palm Sunday forecasts the unrivaled euphoria to come on Easter morning.
The dark notes of Palm Sunday correspond to this unstoppably happy king being our “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). The joy of Palm Sunday corresponds to Jesus’s own joy — his indestructible gladness, his willingness to come to Jerusalem and go even to the cross for the joy set before him. The one on whom is poured the oil of gladness without peer (Psalm 45:7) is the one who will be despised, rejected, and well acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).
His Peculiar Glory
It is fitting on this strange and wonderful Sunday that the people would reach for Psalm 118:26 and cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
This psalm captures so well the peculiar glory of Palm Sunday. Just a breath before verse 26, the psalmist writes, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22–23).
“The joy of Palm Sunday forecasts the unrivaled euphoria to come on Easter morning.”
The glory of Palm Sunday is not that the long-awaited king parades into town amid the pomp and flair of natural human expectation. This is not a king of unchallenged pedigree, born in a palace, nurtured by world-class tutors, surrounded by accomplished generals, trumpeting into the great city to conquer his foes and lay claim to his crown.
No, here is a Nazarene, a backwater, purported to have been conceived in shame, a common laborer by trade, riding not on a noble steed, but the colt of an ass. He comes not to brandish his sword and demonstrate his quality for the popular expectations, but to give his own neck to the knife and display his meekness in uncompromised sacrifice. He comes not to kill, but to be killed, accompanied not by generals and soldiers, but twelve bumbling companions, one of whom will betray him, another of whom deny him, and all of whom will scatter when the real conflagration begins.
Marvelous in Our Eyes
The long-awaited Messiah comes not in human glory, but peculiar glory — the glory of strength in weakness, the glory of indomitable joy in excruciating pain, the glory of the Lion of Judah who gives himself as the Lamb of God. He comes on a donkey’s colt to be the stone the builders will utterly reject on Friday, and that God himself will unveil as the very cornerstone on Sunday morning.
“Only a king on a donkey could truly save our souls, and fully satisfy them forever.”
To the natural mind, whether Jew or Greek, it is sheer madness. A crucified hero is folly to the Hellenists; a rejected Messiah, a stumbling block to the Hebrews (1 Corinthians 1:23). But for those who have received the gift of true sight, it is marvelous in our eyes.
No creature could plan it like this. This is indeed God’s doing. Palm Sunday, and the Passion to follow, is no human creation, no happenstance of history. This bears the indelible fingerprints of the divine, and this is the very unveiling of the promised rescue, in all its strangeness and wonder.
Only a king on a donkey could truly save our souls, and fully satisfy them forever.
For Holy Week 2016, we are publishing a series of fresh meditations, one each for Palm Sunday and Easter and two each on the other six days. Also, our new devotional book, Your Sorrow Will Turn to Joy, provides morning and evening readings for Holy Week and is available for download, free of charge.