Understanding the icon for Palm Sunday
This is one of the more accessible icons. It also has profound depth.
It tells the story of the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
It is a significant story and it appears in all four gospels (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19).
The particular icon that we see here is Russian and comes from the C16th. It can be found in the Pskov museum.
Jesus is shown riding on a horse. Donkeys were unknown in this part of Russia, and so horses are used to depict the donkey. In this icon, the horse is noble – a far cry from the colt of the donkey that we are told Jesus rode on. Other similar icons have the horses submissively bowing their head.
However we need to be aware that the icon is not depicting the actual scene: rather it is trying to uncover its meaning. The fact that Jesus rode a colt was a fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which speaks of God’s king coming to Jerusalem riding on a colt. It is this which the icon is trying to show, and the name of this icon is ‘The triumphal entry’. Jesus is shown coming to Jerusalem as King.
THE TRIUMPHAL ENTRY
The one who is coming to Jerusalem is shown as the Son of God and the King of Kings. He has a halo on which are depicted the letters (now hard to see) alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet: the name which is given to both God the Father and to Christ in Revelation. Above the halo is the inscription IC XC, standing for Jesus Christ. He also holds a scroll (he is the one who is worthy to open the scroll in Revelation 5:5). The light which illuminates the rock and the horse comes from Jesus himself. He is the source of all light.
Meanwhile the children cut down palms from the tree, and lay their garments at his feet. The laying of garments beneath someone’s feet is a symbol of total surrender. I am saying, ‘You can walk over me’. Underneath their outer clothing, they are dressed in white – the symbol of purity. The children who proclaim, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, are mentioned in Matthew 21:15. Jesus said, ‘Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of heaven like a little child will never inherit it’ (Mark 10:15). In some similar icons, a child is shown pulling a thorn from the foot of another child – obviously as a result of climbing the tree. In that, there is a hint of what lies ahead for Jesus.
The people outside Jerusalem have come out to welcome Jesus. Some of them hold palms. There are men and women, and in some icons, a clear depiction of husband, wife and child. There does not appear, in these icons, to be any hint of people in the crowd who reject Jesus (although these are only mentioned in Luke’s account).
So this is the depiction of the triumphant king, the eternal Son of God, coming to Jerusalem, God’s city.
THE HUMBLE ENTRY
And yet there is something odd about Jesus. Although he rides a noble horse, and not a colt, his humility is shown in the way that he is seated. He is at peace and his face is turned to Jerusalem, but his back is to Jerusalem. It seems to show that this is not what he wills, but it is something that he accepts. Perhaps he is aware of what awaits him when he reaches the city. And as he approaches, he blesses the city (it is hard to see in this particular icon, but his right hand is pointed towards the city in blessing).
There is also some hesitancy about the disciples following Jesus. One of them blesses Jesus; another (Thomas?) seems to be pointing back. Jesus, in the way that he is sitting, identifies himself with them [‘So Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters’ Hebrews 2:11]; he is also urging them on.
AN ICON OF PILGRIMAGE: THE MOVEMENT FROM THE OLD CITY TO THE NEW CITY
As we look at the upper level of the icon, we see there are two cities in this icon.
The city on the left represents the cities of this world.
The city on the right, with its many churches and well dressed citizens (they wear shoes in contrast to the bare footed disciples) represents, at one level, the earthly Jerusalem; but at a deeper level it represents the heavenly Jerusalem.
All lines and all movement in this icon point to the heavenly Jerusalem. Although Jesus is the central character, the New Jerusalem is the focal point. The horse is going uphill towards Jerusalem. The mountain and tree lean towards Jerusalem. The lines of the rocks, both of the mountain and the floor, point to Jerusalem
And there is a progression from bottom left to top right. We begin with the disciples, who are underneath the old city. We progress over the rocky mountain, which represents the wilderness, the place of the Holy Spirit and meeting with God (in this particular icon there is a large cave, echoing the caves that we find in icons depicting the caves, for instance, where Elijah meets with God, in which Jesus is born and in which he is buried). We move through the tree - which, because of its angle, is directly above Jesus - and into the heavenly city. Those who know Rublev’s icon of the Trinity will know that in the upper level of that icon there is a rock which inclines to a tree (also directly above the angel representing Jesus Christ) which inclines to a house.
This is an icon which tells how God’s King, the eternal Son of God, is coming into his city and his kingdom. But it is also an icon for his rather tentative followers. It is saying that, at one level, in order to move from the earthly city to the heavenly city, we need to go through the wilderness, the place of repentance, of death to self and of recognition of our need for God, and through the cross of Jesus.
But it is also saying that we need to look to Jesus. He is the bridge between the disciples and the New Jerusalem, heaven. The children (representing the saints, and martyrs) are those who encourage us on our journey. Those who are already in the New Jerusalem (the prophets and patriarchs?) urge us on: they look, not at Jesus, but at the disciples. [‘Seeing we are surrounded by such a great host of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders’ Hebrews 12:1]. Jesus, the Son of God, identifies himself with us, is one of us, and urges us on.