Palm Sunday and the Icon of the Entrance into Jerusalem (3/03)
A Meditation by Mary Grace Ritchey
|Scriptural Readings Vespers
First Reading Genesis 49: 1-13
Second Reading Sophonias 3: 14-20
Third Reading Zacharias 9: 9-15
|Matthew 21: 1-11; 15-17
Epistle Phillipians 4: 4-9
Gospel John 12: 1-18
|O Christ our God, when You raised Lazarus from the dead, before the time of your passion, you confirmed the future resurrection of all. We too, like the children of old, carry before You the symbols of your triumph and victory and cry out to You, the Conqueror of Death: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!
|O Christ our God, we have been buried with You in baptism: wherefore we merited eternal life through your resurrection. We cry out to You, singing a hymn of praise: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
|O Christ God enthroned in heaven, and on earth riding upon an ass: You have accepted the praise of the angels and the hymns of the children who were crying out to You: “Blessed are You who come to restore Adam.”
The Byzantine Daily Worship tells us that the feast of Palm Sunday began in the Fourth Century in Jerusalem where, at the site of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, the Gospel was read and Christ was hailed as the King of the Heavenly City of Jerusalem. The bishop re-enacted the event by riding on an ass while a multitude of people carrying palms and singing hymns, processed to the Church of the Resurrection. The Palm Sunday procession was adopted by the Western Church in Rome in 1039 (BDW p. 815).
Children play a central part in the icon and in the and in our celebration today. The people who took part in the procession singing “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” had come to see the risen Lazarus, out of curiosity. In the icon the true believers are the children. In icons, children are shown in their spiritual maturity rather than their physical stage of growth. When Mary is shown with her mother Anne, when Christ is shown with His mother, Mary, they are shown as small adults. So, too, in this icon the children are shown as miniature adults who are participating in the procession by covering the path on which Christ is riding, with clothing and palm branches. A palm branch is a symbol of joy and feasting in the icon (THE MEANING OF ICONS by Lossky and Ouspensky p. 176). The palm branch is also placed in the hand of the martyrs in the icons associating joy with their imitation of Christ’s giving of life. “The Jews used them to welcome people of high rank; as a symbol of valour it was also given to reward conquerors. So the crowd gathered at the city gates with palm branches in their hands to welcome the Lord riding on a donkey as the Conqueror of death” (p. 176). In the icon Jesus rides sideways looking either at the Apostles following Him or toward Jerusalem. His right hand is usually shown in blessing or pointing to the people and the city.
The Vespers reading from Genesis alludes to the Messiah coming in Glory as King and prophesizes His Passion: “Judah your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you…The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until it comes to whom it belongs, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his ass’s colt to the choice vine, he washes his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes….”
The reading from Sophonias (Zephaniah) tells of the coming of the Lord to save Israel, to gather her and honor her before all nations: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout O Israel…The Lord has taken away the judgment against you, he has cast out your enemies…The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst…The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory…he will save…At that time I will bring you home…I will make you renowned and praised by all the peoples of the earth….”
The reading from Zecharias further prophesies “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold, thy king comes to thee, meek and seated on an ass and upon a colt, the foal of a beast of burden….”
But it is the Matins Gospel of Matthew that reveals the meaning of all these things, describes what we see in the icon and gives us the participants and their roles. It speaks of Jesus sending his disciples to the village of Bethphage with instructions to bring the ass tied, and a colt with her and to tell anyone who asks that “the Lord has need of them.” This is to show them the fulfillment of the prophet Zecharias, as quoted above, in this Gospel as well. The disciples cover the ass and the colt with their cloaks and the crowd, who has gathered because they know that Lazarus was raised from the dead, throw their cloaks upon the ground and cut fronds from the palm trees, while the children spread the garments before Christ. The spreading of garments is reserved for kings (see 4 Kings 9: 13). It is the crowd who keeps on saying: “This is Jesus the prophet, the one from Nazareth of Galilee.” The Scribes and chief priests express their disapproval to Jesus that the children are crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David” but Jesus reminds them “Out of the mouths of infants and sucklings thou has perfected praise” (Psalm 8: 2). It may have been these same people who participated in the condemnation of Christ a few days later so the children’s faith is emphasized in the icon by the spreading of garments. The apochryphal Gospel of Nicodemas also speaks of the children’s role (THE MEANING OF ICONS, p.178). The people wanted a kingdom of this world and later renounce Jesus by telling Pilate to “Crucify him”.
The Epistle from Philippians stresses how the child of God follows the way of Christ. He is told to rejoice always; be moderate in all things; remember that the Lord is near so do not be anxious; pray, supplicate God but with thanksgiving “let your petitions be known to God”. Be at peace and practice and hold true what ever is honorable, holy, just, loving, virtuous and all that we have known through Jesus.
The Gospel tells the anointing of Christ by Mary at the house in Bethany of Lazarus while Martha served. Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with a costly ointment and wiped his feet dry with her hair. Judas criticizes her by saying the money could have been used for the poor. John plainly says he is a thief and didn’t care about the poor. This anointing indicates that Christ is both priest and king. Knowing of Lazarus’ resurrection, people followed Jesus to the house in Bethany. Next in the order of events is the sending for the ass (Matthew’s Gospel) and the procession of palms into Jerusalem. John says “The crowd therefore, which was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness to him. And the reason why the crowd also went to meet him was that they heard he had worked this sign.” But these things concerning Jesus were not understood by disciples until Jesus was glorified. The entire icon conveys joy and festivity by the colors and movement.