The day after Jesus resurrects his friend Lazarus, Jesus is joyously welcomed as he enters into Jerusalem in what will be the only time in His three years of ministry that He received any kind accolades in a public display of hope and faith (John 12:1-18). It is also the entry into His last week of life on earth. Some historians note that at about the same time that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was entering Jerusalem with an armed cohort to remind the Jews that they were in subjugation to the Roman Empire. The contrast between the two entrances is part of the backdrop against which events are unfolding. The Jewish Temple leadership had aligned itself with their Rome overlords ostensibly to secure the place of the Temple in Jewish society, but the price they paid was they themselves were collecting tax money and funneling it to Rome. And they accepted the responsibility for keeping the Jewish population in check to appease Rome. They had little interest in encouraging Jesus and His band of followers and were working hard to contain Jesus and His disciples.
Jesus entry into Jerusalem attracted some attention, but it is hard from the Gospel accounts to know how much or even to determine what gate Jesus entered or what streets he was traversing. The “crowd” is variously described as “the whole multitude of the disciples” (Luke 19:37), “many people” (Mark 11:8), “a large crowd” (Matthew 21:8), and John refers to “the great crowd that had come to the festival” (John 12:12) which means they weren’t there specifically to see Jesus. Although Matthew says all the city was disturbed by Christ’s entrance, it is clear that many don’t even know who Jesus is and so are asking, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10) And since there was no media coverage, Christ’s entrance would only have attracted those who knew he was coming and where he would enter the city. Jerusalem was swamped with visitors for the Passover, so there was already a lot of chaos in the city. This is also why Pilate and the Roman legion entered the city – to be a visible presence to remind the Jews who is lord and master over them.
Liturgically, Palm Sunday is kept as one of the Great Feasts of the Church. It marks the end of Great Lent and the transition into Holy Week. There is a joyous tone to the weekend and the events it celebrates. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes:
.Palm Sunday: the Feast of the Kingdom, the feast of the reign. Everything is so clear during that feast. All of Holy Week is the revelation of the Kingdom. The Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem is the revelation of the King. The Last Supper – the revelation of the Kingdom. The Cross – the reign, the victory of the King. Pascha – the beginning of the eternal Passover, the entrance into heaven. “And He opened for us the gates of paradise…” (The Journals of Father Alexander Schememann, p. 232)
Palm Sunday is a day of rejoicing for Christians at the conclusion of Great Lent. Even the Epistle for the day is joyous (Philippians 4:4-9). Orthodox scholar Peter Bouteneff comments:
St. Paul tells us to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, worthy of praise (Phil 4:8). Why? Because they are imitations of God. They describe Jesus Christ. They are window to his presence. They soften our hearts. ( How to be a Sinner, p. 39)
We are to think about Christ and our life in Him, always remembering His connection to us involves the Cross. “...looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:2-3).