Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE THE YEAR 75 the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described the recent Jewish revolt against Roman rule and how the imperial army, led by Vespasian and his son Titus, had crushed the rebels. Vespasian was proclaimed emperor and an elaborate victory celebration was held. The treasures of Jerusalem were carried through Rome in a triumphant display of imperial power. Josephus describes it this way: “Vespasian and Titus came forth crowned with laurel, and clothed in purple … At this all the soldiers shouted for joy…” A great triumphal march followed with Roman senators and uniformed troops. Treasures taken from the defeated Jews were paraded through the city. “…they made the greatest display carrying what had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem: the golden table, the golden lampstand … and the last of all the spoils, the Torah of the Jews” (The Jewish Wars, VII, 5). What a contrast to the scene remembered by the Church today: the Lord Jesus, “humble and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:9). He was acclaimed, not by a conquering army, but by a ragtag crowd of children, pulling branches from the trees. Their shout was not “Hail, Caesar!” but “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Christ as King

The Gospels consistently proclaim that the coming of Kingdom of God was at hand. The presence of the Kingdom was the main focus of the Lord Jesus’ teaching, as it had been the message of John the Baptist. The apostles depicted Christ as One in whom the Kingdom was present and that He Himself was “the son of David,” its King. What kind of kingdom He ruled was regularly misunderstood, however. People assumed that the Messiah-King would re-establish an Israel free of Roman oversight. When the magi asked Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod assumed that his position on the throne was threatened. He responded by killing the boys of Bethlehem whom we call the Holy Innocents. When Jesus fed the multitudes with a few barley loaves and two small fish, people thought that this was a sign that, with Jesus, God was restoring Israel’s independence. “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15). When the Jewish authorities accused Jesus before Pilate, it was that He had made Himself a king. Because of this, Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11). Much of what followed – the soldiers’ mockery, the purple robe, the crown and scepter, and the charge nailed over His head on the cross – point to the Romans’ belief that Jesus was claiming to rule the land of Israel. The Lord had told Pilate explicitly that this was not so. “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). There is one further note in the Gospels pointing to the apostles’ faith that the Lord Jesus truly is king. Jesus is buried, not as a homeless convicted rebel, but in a manner worthy of a king, surrounded with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) provided by Nicodemus. That people saw Jesus as a (supposed) Messiah-King is clear; that they misunderstood the nature of His kingship is undisputed.

A Kingdom “Not of This World”

When Pilate asked Jesus “are you a King?” the Lord answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (Matthew 18:37). It is in the Gospel records of Jesus’ teaching – particularly the Parables – that we see what His kingdom was, and what it was not. This teaching is summarized in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). This text is so familiar to us that we may not see it as describing the lifestyle of God’s Kingdom: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is safe to say that the Lord is not describing the ruling elite of any worldly state. Elsewhere we see that His Kingdom is based on: Putting God First – “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33); Child-like Simplicity - “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, 4); “Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’”(Matthew 19:13, 14); Imitating the Way He Empties Himself – “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8); Servant-Leadership – “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:24-30); “So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to 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” (John 13:12-14). This is the Kingdom we celebrate today.
 
From Armenia to every corner of the Middle East Palm Sunday is celebrated as a feast for children. Describing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, St Matthew’s Gospel highlights the participation of children in the event. “When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He did and the children crying out in the temple and saying ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ they were indignant and said to Him, Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes – have you never read ‘Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise?’” (Matthew 21:15-16) Children are singled out for mention in the first historical witness we have to this feast as well. Towards the end of the fourth century the Spanish nun Egeria, on pilgrimage to the newly-adorned holy places of Palestine, described what she saw on that Palm Sunday: “As the eleventh hour draws near … all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. … From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there through the entire city … everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.” The scene Egeria witnessed has been repeated ever since. While today this procession is held at the end of Orthros or the Divine Liturgy, Egeria describes it as taking place “at the eleventh hour,” our 5 PM. This practice echoed the Gospel witness that “Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at everything, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11). There they spent the night.

Children and the Church Today

Palm Sunday services attract large numbers of families who may never attend the Liturgy otherwise. Many clergy blame negligent parents; others feel that the Church has not tried hard enough to reach these parents. Some say that the Church spends too much effort educating children while ignoring adults. After all, they reason, the Lord blessed children but directed His teaching at adults. Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, superior of Moscow’s Stretensky Monastery offers another insight. He suggests that, instead of debating about whom we should teach, we should reexamine what we do with them. Are we emphasizing secondary matters when we should be introducing them to Christ? He writes:
“Children at the age of eight or nine go to church and sing on the kliros, amazing and delighting everyone around them. But by the age of fourteen to sixteen, many – if not the majority – stop going to church. “Children have not become acquainted with God. No, they of course are acquainted with the rites, with Church Slavonic, with order in church, with the lives of saints, and with sacred history as arranged for children. But they are not acquainted with God Himself. No encounter has taken place. The result is that parents, Sunday schools and – sad as it is – priests have built the house of childhood faith upon the sand (Matthew 7:26), and not upon the rock of Christ. “How can it happen that children do not notice God, despite all the most sincere efforts of adults to instill faith in them? How can it turn out that children still do not find within themselves the strength to discern Christ the Savior in their childhood lives and in the Gospel? “When responding to this question, we raise yet another adult problem, one that is reflected in our children as in a mirror. This is when both parents and priests teach one thing, but live in another way. This is a most frightful blow to the tender strength of childhood faith, an unbearable drama for their sensitive minds.”
If children only come to church on Palm Sunday, is it because their elders – parents, relatives, adults around them – have not reflected to them their own encounter with the Lord themselves?

Our Holy Week and Jerusalem

In 326-28 the Empress Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Palestine at the behest of her son to mark the places where Christ lived and died by constructing shrines and churches. According to Eusebius of Caesarea she was chiefly responsible for two churches, the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem (still in existence), and a church on the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s ascension. Jerusalem. She also took part in the excava-tions at the site of the Lord’s death and burial where the Great Church of the Resurrection stands today. It soon became the practice for great celebrations to take place at these sites, particularly when the events which took place there were observed. It was at these shrines that historical commemorations of the events of the Lord’s passion were first conducted. In time local Churches throughout the Mediterranean world began to imitate the appealing Jerusalem practices, developing the historical observances of Holy Week as we know them today.

The Power of the Redemption

The first observances of Pascha in both East and West, however, were not attempts to recreate the events of the Lord’s passion. Rather they were focused on the effects of the Lord’s death and resurrection in the lives of the faithful. Thus the highpoint of the Resurrection celebration was the baptism of catechumens, which took place before the Paschal Liturgy, and the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday: those whose serious sins had excluded them from the community,. In the same spirit Byzantine Churches today offer the Mystery of Holy Unction on Holy Wednesday. People are anointed for the healing of their spiritual infirmities, uniting with Christ in the power of His death and resurrection.
On Celebrating This Feast
In His humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and He is glad that He became so humble for our sake, glad that He came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to Himself. And even though we are told that He has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of His power and godhead – His love for mankind will never rest until He has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with His own in heaven. So let us spread before His feet – not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither – but ourselves, clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before Him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of His victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel. (St Andrew of Crete)
 
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.”
From the Canon of Palm Sunday Matins
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!”

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