“And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’” Who is this? Who is this the story of whose suffering and death we have just heard? Who is this whose Resurrection we will be acclaiming one week hence?
“Who is this?” is the right question, the first question.
The Palm Sunday Gospel begins with Jesus coming down the Mount of Olives, from the village of Bethany just over the crest. Down to the valley of the Brook Kidron, and into the city of Jerusalem and its shining gold-clad Temple, brilliant in the sun. Down he came on a donkey’s back, through cheering crowds. Let’s, though, widen the frame. Not for nothing, centuries ago, this Gospel was read on the 1st Sunday of Advent – the beginning of the whole liturgical year. This going down is part of something greater. “He came down from heaven”, says the Creed, down from the Father. “His state was divine”, says St Paul, “yet Christ Jesus did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” We begin to open up to who he is, the man on the donkey who ends on a Cross.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!” shouts the crowd. He comes as Messiah, the Son of David, the Messiah who’s one with his people – their destiny tied up with his. More still, here is the second Adam, the representative man, containing us all. Here is a second Noah who carries in the ark of his human body the whole of humanity and creation. Here is the priest according to the order of Melchizedek coming to offer the final sacrifice. Here is the seed of Abraham in person. “This is the prophet”, say the crowds, a second Moses, ready to carry his people over the Red Sea of death into new life. This is the true Paschal Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world. In Jesus, coming down the Mount of Olives, come all the hopes of Israel. More still, there comes the Son of God: who comes down from heaven, takes our nature and embraces everyone of us in his divine and human being in order “to gather into one the scattered children of God”, to grant us “a share in his Resurrection” (Collect). God comes down, carried by a donkey and carrying us.
And what’s in his heart as he descends? In St Luke’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, Jesus pauses during the descent, looks at the city and weeps. In Matthew’s Gospel, he says, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Jesus comes to Jerusalem with the motherhood of God in his heart. He doesn’t come on a horse, like Judas Maccabeus; he comes on the animal of peace, a beast of burden, burdening himself with us. “Ride on, ride on, in majesty”, goes the hymn: the majesty of humble love in his heart. He goes to his passion, says St Catherine of Siena, like a thirsty deer to a stream, thirsting for our good.
This is who goes into the Passion: the Son of God made Son of man, carrying us all, embracing each and every one of us, individually and together.
In the eyes of his adversaries Jesus was a disposable individual, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Galilean as the girl describes, a nuisance item to be rid of, erased from history, another “bloke” we’d be better rid of. But no, he’s not an isolated unit. He has the depth of divinity within him and the breadth of an all-encompassing love. In Gethsemane, he carries everyone who has struggled with the thought of death, and he agrees to drink the cup of every human suffering. On the Cross, with its strange noontide darkness, he lives through every dying. And in his last loud cry, he voices “all the troubles, for all time, of humanity enslaved by sin and death, all the petitions and intercessions of salvation history” (CCC 2606). “Ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried”, says Isaiah, even our alienation from God: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He took it all on himself and into himself, as Son, quite freely, and entrusted it all and us all to the Father, loving to the end. And the Father lovingly received it, and him, his Son, and us in him, and “beyond all hope” raised him from the dead. And us in him. To say it again, the One who came down that hill on the back of a donkey was carrying all of us. He went with us into the world sin had disfigured, into the realm of suffering and death, and on and out, into the glorified risen self his Father had in store for him. We are relocated now. He took what’s ours and gave us what’s his.
The only thing we have to do this Holy Week, then, is connect, reconnect after any disconnect. All we need to do is place ourselves freely where God has already placed us: in Christ, in his body, in his dying and his rising. Like Judas or the Sanhedrin or the crowd or Pilate or the soldiers, we can hold ourselves outside him. Or we can go inside, into Christ, like our Lady and the beloved disciple, the good thief and the centurion, Simon of Cyrene and Joseph of Arimathea, like the holy women and Peter after his tears, like the donkey even and the colt trotting alongside. We can consent to be part of him.
Before we were born, Christ has already taken us on, taken us in. He has already died for our sins and been raised for our justification. Faith is our visa to the land of grace. “Who is this?” God and us in one.