It hardly needs noting that we live in vexed and troubled times, not very much different from the situation of people in Palestine when Jesus came to Jerusalem riding on a donkey’s colt. It was an event rich with symbolic meaning for the Jews of the time and later for Christians throughout the world.
Only the gospel of John mentions palm branches, which gave the day we celebrate its common title. Luke mentions nothing about branches at all. But date-palm branches were carried even in ancient times by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem as a sign of triumph and liberation, and they find mention in this regard in the Book of Revelation [Rev 7:9]. Date-palms grew in the Jordan valley and still do, but at that time, it is unlikely that fruitful trees grew in and around Jerusalem, in the more mountainous region. Often olive branches are substituted, and a common translation has “reeds,” but the ceremonial plant-life really isn’t nearly as important as was the donkey Jesus rode as he entered Jerusalem.
All the gospels mention the young animal, although Mark (alone) points out that it was a colt on which no one had yet ridden, which is something of a miracle in itself. Jesus may have been the first donkey-whisperer on record. But the donkey, or ass, was considered a beast of burden rather than war animal, which is the important point. The reference here to Zechariah 9:9 is made clear by the citation of this singular passage by Matthew and John::
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus probably entered Jerusalem in the midst of long line of pilgrims coming for the unusually holy feast, for Passover and the sabbath coincided that year. It would have been a joyous crowd. Perhaps riding on a young colt would not have seemed unusual. But the shouts of “Hosannah,” one of the rare Hebrew words that survived in the Greek New Testament, is significant, for at root it means “savior” [Ps 118:25]. Matthew, Mark, and John all mention it. At least Jesus’ faithful followers recognized and remembered the significance of this jubilant procession in that holy year.
Jesus knew what awaited him, however. He had predicted many times that he would die in Jerusalem, executed as a threat to the reigning religious and political cadres in league with the Roman imperial agents. In Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus looked out over the city just before entering it, he wept because it failed to truly recognize the time of its visitation [Luke 19:41-44]. And so, despite the joyful shouts and songs, our liturgy today continues with the first of the gospel readings that relate the events leading to Jesus’ betrayal, trial, execution, and, lest we forget, his resurrection.
The redeeming death of Jesus has never been easy to fathom. It challenges us perhaps more than ever before to understand how he accepted suffering and death but in this dreadful way reconciled the human race to God, overcoming the terrible division caused by the whole history of sin, estrangement, and despair. He offered his life in exchange for ours. His name itself means “God saves.”
And that is why our first two readings, carefully chosen from the Book of Isaiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Caesarea Philippi are so important for understanding and faith, perhaps especially today. They prepare us to grasp, not with our minds so much as with our hearts, what we will remember during Holy Week, reaching a climax on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Today, we begin our own pilgrimage with the gospel reading from Mark, which recounts the mystery of God’s love, a love made real, visible, and effective in the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All God asks of us here and now is to listen — carefully and with love.