The morning sun rose, exhaling a steamy, dusty breath over the stillness of creation, human and otherwise. Relentlessly, it began its climb higher and higher in the sky. Despite the early hour, the roads were teeming with pilgrims, walking the tedious journey from their home villages to the thriving metropolis of Jerusalem. It was Passover time. Anyone able to travel had arranged schedules to make the trip possible. They bore a deep sense of religious pilgrimage. Yet the anticipation of being able to visit markets spilling over with the latest goods, the joy of seeing old, dear friends, and just plain celebrating were as much a part of each decision to journey as was anything else.
Eagerness and excitement filled the air and gave happy contrast to the pushing and shoving of milling crowds. Those vibrant feelings also made the noise of squalling infants and weary children more bearable. Sounds of determined peddlers hawking their wares among the throngs heightened the thrill as they moved steadily toward the city gates. The sense of holiday festivities almost eradicated the unmistakable odor of unwashed bodies already drenched in perspiration in the rising heat.
A variety of discussions and conversations could be heard as the pilgrims walked. Both women and men amiably chatted. Suddenly, a single name surfaced to pierce the gossip. People were talking about one man, Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son who was turning their world upside down.
Multitudinous, mixed feelings emerged.
Some were totally in awe of him. They were calling him “Master” and “Rabbi”—even “Messiah.” They saw in him a means toward their liberation from oppression. They dared dream for the rising of the Jewish nation. They saw their age-old hopes, the prophetic visions and dreams being fulfilled in him. Now they were urging their fellow villagers and travelers to join them in discipleship.
Others moved away in fear. They were not certain why they felt as they did. Something about this man spoke to them of challenge and desire and change and growth. They were afraid of this kind of newness, despite its accompanying exhilaration. The old ways were burdensome and restrictive, but they knew well the tasks and toil of that kind of slavery. They were fearful of the unfamiliar servitude, demands they sensed would result from companionship with this Nazarene.
Still others were unsure. They wanted to wait and see what he was going to do. They had heard him speak and had seen the miracles, but that was not yet enough for them. Prophets had come and gone in the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents. They had heard the stories. What was different about this man? Was he more than Elijah and Moses and Abraham? How could he be? After all, who or what good could ever come out of Galilee?
More were simply curious. Locked away in their tiny hamlets, far removed from the mainstream of society, they had limited experience of anything more than tending their sheep and goats. They only knew well the grass-starved hillsides they wandered. Just to see someone unfamiliar to them was an exciting prospect. Nothing more need come of it.
They trudged along in groups, talking as they walked, until the walls of Jerusalem could be sighted on the not-too-distant horizon. New energy surged in their bodies. Everyone could feel the difference—even the little ones who were gray with fatigue. Their pace quickened. At the same time, “When they drew near Jerusalem and came to Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me. And if anyone should say anything to you, reply, “The master has need of them.” Then he will send them at once’” (Matt 21:1-3).
The disciples went off and did as Jesus had asked. By the time they had been able to complete the directions given, a huge crowd had gathered within the gates of Jerusalem. Word had spread that Jesus was on the way. Among the mixed throng of people were the patriotic and morally austere Pharisees. They followed the law religiously and were deeply disturbed by this Jesus who saw depths of meaning in the law. The depths offered a freedom they could neither fathom nor uphold. Sincere men, they also watched Jesus carefully. They waited to see if he would continue to confront them. He might ultimately disappear into the desert with his tiny gathering of fanatics. Perhaps they would be left alone and would not have to make a choice to be “for” or “against” this man.
Suddenly, the word spread like wildfire through the gathered crowd. He was coming. As if they were but one person, the crowd began to move spontaneously toward the city gates. As they went, they gathered palm branches from the trees lining the roadside, as well as reeds from the surrounding fields. Some took the cloaks from their backs and spread them across the roadway. A sense of the sacred, the important, the wonderful, the awesome filled and fed the massed peoples. The feeling could not be contained. It poured out of them with incredible spontaneity. A great song filled the air:
Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest! (Matt 21:9)
Upset Pharisees tried in vain to stop the shouting. They appealed to Jesus by asking him to rebuke the people. Yet they knew they could not stop a cry that came out of unidentified depths by the very people who were shouting it. If the people did not cry out, the stones would. Somewhere in a consciousness they had not yet recognized or realized, Jesus had won the hearts of the people. More importantly, he had won them by bathing them in a love they could not resist—not by blasting them with power they would resent.
Jesus looked at them and they at him. This was no man of war. This was a lowly one riding upon an ass. The crowd was puzzled. Yet they were unable to halt their hosannas. Somehow, the deeper meaning of his presence had penetrated their hearts. Pierced with love, they knew beyond knowing that this man was not to be the Messiah of their hopes for victory, yet their hearts were melted. The whole city was stirred to its depths.
Palms of passion are waving. A unique Passover is begun. ♦
Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, from which this selection is taken. She is also a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. Reach her at email@example.com.