The triumphal entry: a talk for Palm Sunday

Mark 11.1-11

I’d like to show you an icon of the triumphal entry. This is a Russian icon from the 16th century. It depicts the event we have just read about in Mark 11.

In the centre we have Jesus. It is all about him. His head is at the central point. He has a halo (which has faded), and he is riding a horse (they didn’t know donkeys in Russia which is why they show Jesus riding on a horse). It is, in this depiction, a noble beast – which at one level slightly misses the point.

Jesus did not come riding into Jerusalem on a war horse, but on a donkey. It is not that a king would not ride a donkey, but he would only ride a donkey if he was coming in peace. And Jesus’ choice of the donkey was a fulfilment of Zechariah 9.9, ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ So Jesus is claiming to be King, but claiming to be a king who is coming in peace. He does not compel people to serve him. He invites people to come under his just and right rule.

In this icon Jesus is shown as one who has authority. He has in his hand a scroll. It might be the scroll of wisdom or the book of life.

What does seem to capture the humility of his coming is the way that he is seated. We are told that Jesus had ‘set his face’ to go to Jerusalem. His face is turned toward Jerusalem. He knew what awaited him there, but he also knew it was where he had to go in obedience to his Father. But he is seated with his back to Jerusalem, so that his body is towards his disciples. They are fearful. They are following on but they know that Jesus is a wanted man, and they know if they go to Jerusalem then Jesus will probably be arrested. If you look in detail, we can see that one disciple is pointing back, while Peter is pointing forward.

But I wonder whether the icon writer (we call them icon writers and not painters) wishes to show us something more. It is hinted at in v2, where Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to ride a colt that has never been ridden before. The whole creation joins in this scene. Jesus does not need to guide the beast. It knows who it is carrying and it knows on its own where it has to go. There is only one place that the King can go to: the city of the King.

And here the people wave palms and welcome him. The children climb the tree to cut down branches, and they lay the branches and their cloaks on the road for him. Of course we know that a week later the same city that cried ‘Hosanna’, cries ‘crucify Him’.

And at the top in the centre of the image, above Jesus, there is a tree. It is the tree that children climb to cut down branches. It also reminds us of another tree which, a week later, will be the throne of this king. A tree to which he is nailed.  

And behind the disciples on the left is a hill with a town on it. The town might indicate Bethlehem. The story begins with him being laid in a manger in Bethlehem. It ends with him riding on a donkey into Jerusalem. Or the town might simply represent Bethany and the hill the Mount of Olives.

What is significant is the cave. In icon writing, the cave represents both the absence of God and the presence of God. It represents both death and resurrection. It represents the absence of light and the overabundance of light – it is how they represent the light that is beyond light.

It is the cave where so many of the great encounters with God take place. It is the darkness, the night time, but the darkness with God. We think of Elijah in his cave on Mount Horeb. He thinks God has abandoned him but it becomes the place where he meets God. And the icon of the nativity shows Jesus’ birth as taking place just outside a cave.

But the darkness also represents that ultimate moment when it seems that God has abandoned us, the moment of Jesus’ death and the moment of our death. But it is the place above all where God is. It is the place of resurrection. And the fact that the cave is depicted here in this icon suggests that there might be something more going on in this icon, and that something more might be going on in the story.

Yes, it is an account of Jesus entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.

But it looks forward to another entry. An entry that takes place after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now this city on the left represents not Bethlehem but the earthly Jerusalem. Now the city on the right represents the new Jerusalem. The people on the right represent the citizens of this new Jerusalem as they welcome their king to his city. He has triumphed through the cross and the resurrection – and the hosts of heaven gather to welcome him in grateful love. As our first reading stated, “Worthy is the lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5.12). And the children, robed in white, lay their cloaks before him – it is a symbol of lives laid before him. And the horse (donkey!) and the palms, show that all of creation joins in this adoration of the one who is king.

And Jesus is the bridge between the earthly church, represented by the disciples, and the heavenly church. And the cross is the bridge between our earthly cities and the heavenly city. And maybe I am reading too much into this, but the cross is transposed onto this icon. There is a vertical axis of the children in the tree and the clothes, and a horizontal axis of Jesus and the people.   

So what for us?

The story invites us to become part of it. This is not just about them, but it is about you.

We are invited to join with the disciples in obeying Jesus and in following him, even when it leads through dark and difficult places. And we are to be, with Peter, people who point forwards and not backwards. Yes, change and movement can be difficult, but we are part of a movement forward. From Bethlehem to Jerusalem. From the physical city to the heavenly city.

We are invited to join the children in the icon or the people in the passage, not by throwing branches or placing our garments under his feet, but by submitting our whole lives, freely and gratefully, before him. Whatever it costs I will, with joy, lay my life before you.

And we are invited to join with the heavenly host, of angels, saints, martyrs, apostles and prophets, of countless men and women who have been made perfect through his blood in their praise. When we gather, we are not coming to create worship. Worship is already going on – it has been there from the very beginning of creation. It will be there till the end of time. It is the worship and praise of heaven. Yes, it is but a faint echo, but when we come together we join in with that worship. And we worship the King – the one who came in humility, but who comes to reign; we worship the one who gave his life on the tree, on the cross; we worship the one who rose from the dead, who conquered death, and who reigns for evermore. To him be glory for ever.


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