Triumph of the King
(This is my regular post for Palm Sunday which I repost each year. Have a happy and blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week.)
“9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: BEHOLD THY KING will come to thee, the just and saviour: he is poor, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. 10 And I will destroy the chariot out of Ephraim, and the horse out of Jerusalem, and the bow for war shall be broken: and he shall speak peace to the Gentiles, and his power shall be from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the end of the earth.”
Thus did the prophet Zechariah, writing half a millennium before, predict the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. How many such glorious entrances into cities have there been over the ages? Every civilization I am aware of has such ceremonies, either parades in peace time or entrances of conquest or liberation in war time. The Romans turned this into an art form with their triumphs, with the reminder of the slave to the imperator of fleeting human mortality: “Respice post te, hominem memento te”.
Few such triumphs have turned into utter disaster as quickly as that of Jesus: Jerusalem at His feet on Sunday, and Christ dead on a Roman Cross before the sun had set on Friday. Small wonder that no contemporary historian or chronicler at the time took note. However some sort of official report probably was filed after the crucifixion. Writing circa 116 AD, and relying heavily on official records for his history, in regard to the great fire at Rome under Emperor Nero Tacitus states:
“15.44.2. But, despite kindly influence, despite the leader’s generous handouts, despite appeasing the gods, the scandal did not subside, rather the blaze came to be believed to be an official act. So, in order to quash the rumour, Nero blamed it on, and applied the cruelest punishments to, those sinners, whom ordinary people call Christians, hating them for their shameful behaviour. 15.44.3. The originator of this name, Christ, was sentenced to torture by Procurator Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius, but although checked for a moment, the deadly cult erupted again, not just in Judaea, the source of its evil, but even in Rome, where all the sins and scandals of the world gather and are glorified.”
Tacitus, clearly hostile to the Christians, points his finger at one of the great mysteries of history. In human terms the Jesus movement was nipped in the bud at its inception. Yet in less than three centuries the Roman emperor bowed before the cross. The triumph of Palm Sunday led only to disaster, and the humiliation and death of the cross led to triumph in eternity and here on Earth.
For we Catholics, and for all other Christians, no explanation of this paradoxical outcome is needed. However there is much here to ponder for non-believers and non-Christians. In purely human terms the followers of Christ had no chance to accomplish anything: no powerful supporters, no homeland embracing their faith, cultures, both Jewish and Gentile, which were hostile to the preaching of the Gospels, other religions which were well-established, the list of disadvantages could go on at considerable length. We take the victory of Christianity for granted because it happened. We forget how very improbable such a victory was. Even more improbable is that what began on Palm Sunday, the triumph of Jesus, has continued till today in spite of all challenges that two thousand years of human folly could cast up. How very peculiar in mortal terms!
Let us give the last word to the patron saint of paradox G. K. Chesterton:
“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.
“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.
“The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.
“The wise men know all evil things
Under the twisted trees,
Where the perverse in pleasure pine
And men are weary of green wine
And sick of crimson seas.
“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.