CHILDREN LOVE A PARADE – they may not know – or care – what it’s about, but they know it’s great fun. They may march out of step or make music out of tune but they know that they’re involved with something special and want to be part of it in their own way.
The children processing in our churches on Palm Sunday are invariably out of step and out of tune, but it is likely that those children they imitate were even more of a rag-tag bunch. Jerusalem’s religious leaders were offended – it was a mockery, they fumed, and those children should be silenced (Luke 19:39-40).
The Pharisees were right in a sense – for the Kingdom of God inaugurated this week does mock our ideas of power, glory, dignity and status. This “King” rides a donkey. His entourage is made up of hillbillies (Galilee was thought a backward province), women and children. His royal chamber was an open field; His throne, the altar of the cross. Who in his right mind would take this king seriously?
Over the course of the Great and Holy Week we will see other paradoxical signs of the Kingdom of God. During the first three days of this week it is customary to venerate two specific icons of Christ. The icon of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church depicts Him in His wedding finery: the mock crown and royal robe of His passion which He put on for the sake of His chosen bride, the Church. The icon called “Extreme Humility” portrays Him in death, having given up His last breath for her. Clearly our standards of a royal wedding do not apply here.
Perhaps the most daring image of this King appears on Holy Thursday. He portrays His method of ruling in the Washing of the Feet (John 13:1-17). He waits on His servants in the most menial way then tells them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you” (vv. 12-15). The constitution for the Kingdom, then, calls for mutual submission, service to one another in love in contrast to the world’s way of the weak submitting to the domination of the rich and powerful.
Commenting on the Gospel passage of the Washing of the Feet, St John Chrysostom wrote, “Christ washed the feet of the traitor, that sacrilegious thief, practically at the time of his betrayal. He made him, incurable as he was, a partaker of His table; and are you so self-important that you look down your nose? … He who sits upon the Cherubim washed the feet of the traitor, and do you, O man – you that are earth and ashes and cinders and dust – do you exalt yourself, as above such behavior? Then how great a hell would you not deserve?
“If then you desire a high state of mind, come, I will show you the way to it; for you do not even know what it is. The man then who gives heed to the present things as being great, is of a mean soul… For as little children are eager for trifles, gaping upon balls and hoops and dice, but cannot even form an idea of important matters; so in this case, one who is truly wise, will deem present things as nothing, (so that he will neither choose to acquire them himself, nor to receive them from others;) but he who is not of such a character will be affected in a contrary way, intent upon cobwebs and shadows and dreams of things even less substantial than these” (Homily 71 1,2).
Living in the Kingdom of God
Our world has few political kingdoms left, but it still values signs of status and power. These signs vary from age to age, from culture to culture: but they are always with us. Every social group – the ruling elites of nations, religious hierarchies, professional leaders, even clubs and informal gatherings of friends or neighbors – have ways of defining and recognizing who is “better” by reason of their power, wealth, or abilities. Who has the more expensive car? Who eats at the better restaurants? Who lives in the bigger house?
Christ’s kingdom avoids the world’s status symbols. That they mean nothing in the Kingdom of God is revealed in the Gospels. There we read that the trappings of earthly domination are a hindrance rather than a help to life in the Kingdom: “Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly I say to you, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Mark 10:24). Being attached to what this age values inevitably leads us to neglect and perhaps forget the values of God’s Kingdom.
The opposite of attachment is detachment – the inner ability to do without the world’s wealth in light of something greater. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus urges His followers to develop that kind of detachment: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [that satisfy our material needs] shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Relying on God with the simplicity of children and the birds of the air, followers of Christ are to give priority to the Kingdom of God in their lives.
In his Epistle to the Philippians St Paul gives us another term which describes the confidence in God of the person who puts the way of the Kingdom first in his or her life. He calls it “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7): This inner assurance in God’s protecting care is not the fruit of reason or human understanding, but comes from accepting the Kingdom of God and His righteousness as the governing principle of our life.
This Week, with its celebration of the Kingdom of God which overturns the expectations of the Jewish leaders, is an invitation to all Christians to reexamine the values by which we live. Do we remain focused upon what St. John Chrysostom calls “cobwebs and shadows and unsubstantial things” or are we following the Lord Jesus to the Kingdom. Looking at the events of this week with the eyes of the Kingdom we see the splendor of the Lord’s glory and beauty where His enemies saw weakness and folly. In the robes of mockery we will see honor. In the shouts of the children we will hear the praises of angels. And seeing Christ humble Himself at the Washing of the Feet we will see the way to “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
The Lord and King of the ages comes clothed in strength. The surpassing splendor of His beauty and His glory is revealed in Sion. Therefore we all cry aloud: “Glory to Your power, O Lord!”
God who is enthroned on high upon the Cherubim and yet cares for the lowly, is Himself coming in power and glory, and all things shall be filled with His divine praise. Peace upon Israel and salvation to the Gentiles.
Greatly rejoice, O Sion, for Christ your God shall reign for ever. As it is written, He is meek and brings salvation. Our righteous Deliverer has come riding upon a foal, that He may destroy the proud arrogance of His enemies who will not cry out, “All you works of the Lord, bless the Lord!”