Many of you who have visited Rome, the eternal city, have no doubt made a point of touring the magnificent basilica named in honor of Saint Peter, the first pope and martyr. As you traveled through the city of Rome you may also have encountered countless other churches built to honor early Christian heroes, saints and martyrs.
Rome, from its earliest times, has had a history of honoring its military and classical heroes with public edifices. One of the most remarkable of these is the Arch of Titus — erected by Emperor Domitian in 81 CE in the Roman Forum at the foot of the Palatine Hill. It commemorates the victories of his father Vespasian and his brother Titus in the Jewish War in Judea (70-71 CE) when the great city of Jerusalem was sacked and the vast riches of its temple plundered. The arch was meant to stand as a political and religious statement honoring the returning Roman forces and expressing the divinity of the late Emperor Titus.
These brief examples outline various ways people throughout history have commemorated and honored their heroes. Indeed, in our own day we salute our sports teams, astronauts and other notables with metropolitan city spectacles. Parades never seem to go out of style, nor should they.
Having said all that, we turn to another pageant that occurred in Jerusalem in the late 30s AD.
The hero of the day was Jesus of Nazareth, well-known, especially in Galilee for his preaching of God’s kingdom and for his miraculous acts of healing. He had only recently arrived in Jerusalem knowing full well that the local temple and civic authorities were already suspicious of him for his popularity and influence among the lower classes. Word, of course, had preceded his arrival and those who had learned of his Galilean popularity proceeded to plan a parade along his route. Granted, it was not much compared to the welcome the Emperor Titus had received on his military entry to Jerusalem, but this mattered little to these local folks who recognized in Jesus not a distinguished civic ruler or temple magistrate but rather the long awaited Messiah and Lord. They welcomed him, therefore, with unabashed pride waving branches of trees and laying their best clothing on the street along the way.
Christians down through the ages, of course, know this modest parade as the celebration as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. We remember this singular event in Jesus life year after year by singing hymns of praise and carrying palms in procession much as the early followers of Jesus did. At the same time however, Christians should not allow this celebration to pass without recognizing its theological importance. Those who celebrate this day are invited to reflect on the deeper question: How do we see Christ today? The answer to such a question becomes clear only if we remember what happened in Jesus’ life a few days later in what we now remember as “Holy Week” — on Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion. It does little good to parade with palms or even to stand on the sidewalk and watch if we are unwilling to accept the challenges of Christ’s Passion that face us in our modern world long after the Palm Sunday procession has ended.
April 9 Scriptures
Isaiah 50: 4-7
Philippians 2: 6-11
Matthew 27: 11-54