Today is Palm Sunday (or Peace Sunday), which marks the beginning of Easter and the passion story of Jesus. Today we remember Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem which, unlike in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke), in John he has visited many times. But this visit in John is different to the others. According to John 12:12 there was a festival on and word had got around that Jesus was ‘in town’ so the revelers flocked to him and greeted him with palm leaves and with chants of acclamation that echoed the deliverance prayers used in Passover meals (Psalm 118:26f) – ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’. The palm leaves carry particular symbolic significance in that they evoke images of the Maccabean revolt and nationalist fervor. Judas Maccabeus re-dedicated the temple altar with palms after its profanation by the Syrians (164BCE) (11 Macc 10:7) and palm fronds appeared on coins to echo the uprising and revolt against Roman occupation in 132 CE. Clearly, the action of the crowd has nationalist and political overtones: they want to identify Jesus as their national liberator. And midst all this excitement and fervor John records this: ‘Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it’. What biting irony!
And further we read that they all were confused! What is Jesus doing? In fact, it got far worse: ‘After Jesus had said this; he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him’ (Jn 12:36b-37). And we know the story of the crowd, that they became angry and soon after, when Jesus was seized, they shouted ‘Crucify him, crucify him.’ Jesus was betrayed and denied by his closet friends. The rest of them ran and deserted him. He was left alone.
There are interesting threads of faith here, but I want to focus on the fervor of the crowd. Most of us would agree that there are elements in our society that manifest an unquenchable fervor to follow a cause. I wrote some weeks ago of the current rise of nationalism in Europe (the fervor of which may even be found on our shores) and with it a sense of fear about losing identity. In his article in The Age, March 19, Nick Miller talked about the so-called Generation Identity, or Identitarians, a group of far-right activists. One of those propagating this idea appears to be Marion Marechal-Le Pen who at a US audience in 2018 said about France: ‘We want our country back … France is in the process of passing from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam … this is not the France that our grandparents fought for.’
This is powerful and evocative language, but I wonder whether it is a long bow to suggest similarities between this nationalistic fervor and that of the crowd chanting Hosanna and throwing the palm fronds at Jesus’ feet? And I wonder whether Jesus sitting on a donkey not a white stallion is a beautiful picture of faith in action for us all, including when we participate in our own protest rallies. Salud.