Today is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. It signifies the day Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem and begins the series of events that mark His final days of life on earth. Palm Sunday itself carries with it much scriptural importance, which we will examine now.
Beginning in the Old Testament, we look to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was prophesying the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem because the corruption that was occurring within it was very offensive to God. He describes the “vile abominations” (Ez 8:9) occurring within the walls and the “creeping things and loathsome beasts and all the idols of the house of Israel” (Ez 8:10) that are being brought inside. Ezekiel further describes men turning their backs to the temple and its altar to worship the sun in the East (Ez 8:16). Needless to say, the things going on in the temple of the Almighty God were not good and God was not happy about it.
As a consequence of all the abominations taking place in His house, the Lord decides to leave. In the Old Testament, the glory of God often has a physical manifestation, so the people would have a visible sign of His presence. For example, the pillar of fire on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:16-17) enabled the Hebrews to know that God was present there with them in the desert. A common description of the physical manifestation of God is that of a cloud (Ex 16:10; 24:16; Lev 9:6, 23; Num 14:22; 16:19; 17:7), which is the description that Ezekiel also uses in His prophesy. After God orders the destruction of the temple in chapter 9 of Ezekiel, we read in chapter 10 of God’s dramatic departure before His command is carried out. Essentially, the inner court of the temple fills with the cloud – the glory of God – which then floats to the east gate, guarded by two cherubim, and departs. When humans make choices to oppose God, He will always honor their free will, never forcing Himself on anyone. In this case, the choices these men made had the devastating consequence of His physical departure from them. However, God is also merciful and, thankfully, the story does not end there.
Chapter 43 of Ezekiel explains that the glory of God will return to the temple and will do so in the same way He departed, from the east. “As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ez 43:5). Even better, He promises never to leave again saying, “this is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever” (Ez 43:7). He then goes on to describe how the temple is to be rebuilt and used for sacrifice to Him.
Now that we have recalled the Old Testament prophecy of the departure of the glory of God before the destruction of the temple, and His return and promise to remain, we can look more closely at the significance of Palm Sunday in Holy Week. Jesus begins this portion of His journey at Bethany, where He is anointed with expensive oil by a woman (Mk 14:3). The town of Bethany sits to the east of Jerusalem. Jesus will have to ascend the Mount of Olives to get to the city of the Jerusalem. In other words, the visible sign of the glory of God – Jesus – will come from the east and ascend to the temple, which will be rebuilt with new prescriptions for worship and where He will remain with His people forever. The Jewish people of this time, who knew their scripture well and were living in hope, would have recognized immediately what was happening as Jesus entered the east gate of Jerusalem. Palm Sunday is a day for rejoicing, indeed, as the Messiah is arriving just as was prophesied!
Palms were symbols of victory, triumph, and rejoicing. They were often waved to welcome a king home from successful battle. As we wave our palm branches today, it helps us enter the moment when Jesus enters Jerusalem and is greeted as a victorious and triumphant king with the waving of palm branches. Further indicating the crowds’ understanding of the scriptural significance of what’s happening, the people cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Jn 12:13), which is an echo of Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord.” Additionally, Jesus enters the city on a humble donkey (Jn 12:15), which hearkens back to Zechariah 9:9, “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The messiah would not be a rich and haughty king. Rather, he would be a humble and poor man to come and save the humble and poor masses. He would be one of them. As you place yourself in the crowd on this joyous day, imagine what it must have felt like to be rejoicing with everyone at the coming of the promised Messiah. Without knowing what was soon to come, they were able to experience the elation of understanding exactly who Jesus was and knowing that He had come to save them.
After entering Jerusalem, the first thing Jesus does is to go to the temple where He finds the moneychangers selling animals for sacrifice (Mat 21:12). The house of worship had become a place of idolatry and a hub of commerce instead of the worship of God. Jesus then cleanses the temple by overturning their tables and casting them out. This should sound familiar, as we opened with Ezekiel’s description of the wild beasts and idols within the temple. This type of unholy and irreverent behavior is exactly why the glory of God left the temple in the first place. Here we see the glory of God returning to cleanse the House of God and restore its holy and sacred purpose. When you enter the house of the Lord, are you careful to leave your idols outside, recognizing you are in the physical presence of the glory of God, no longer as a cloud, but as the person of Jesus, present in the Eucharist?
As we enter Holy Week, think about the historical significance of it all, beginning with the ancient peoples reflected in the Old Testament, all the way to today. These events are timeless and unite all generations of God’s people in the most profound of ways.