A tale of two processions

Matthew 21:1-11
There’s an episode of Dad’s Army in which there is to a big parade of all the organisations involved in the war effort: the Home Guard, the ARP, the Red Cross, the ATS, and so on. Captain Mainwaring decides that the Home Guard need a mascot, and so the platoon attempt to secure a ram, with predictable chaos and failure. They end up with a mangy looking goat, to which they have attempted to attach a pair of antelope horns the vicar brought back from his time as a missionary in Africa (“you can’t ‘ave ‘is reverence’s ‘orns!” said the verger). When they get to the parade with their pathetic mascot, there’s a row about which order everyone is processing in, and the episode ends with the Home Guard and the ARP wardens continually attempting to overtake each other as the processions is moving along.

I mention this because, this was exactly the sort of procession in which Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. IT was no grand and important entrance, but a ramshackle affair. Nonetheless, it was still a big day in a big week. The big week was the annual Passover Festival, when the people of Israel remember and celebrate the nation-shaping, liberation-creating, moment when their ancestors escaped Egyptian captivity to begin their long march through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. The place was Jerusalem, a city whose normal population of around 40,000 people swelled to 200,000–300,000 with pilgrims from Judea and beyond.

What made it a big day, was not Jesus, a donkey, and Palm leaves, but the other procession. Pontius Pilate sought to exercise control by parading military might in an annual procession from the base by the Mediterranean to bolster the garrison in Jerusalem. Pilate’s parade was a potent witness to the power of the Roman machine designed to counter religious zeal and keep order. Thankfully for Pilate, there was an alliance, if rather uneasy, between the Temple folk who oversaw the Passover Festival, and the governing Romans. On this big military parade day, in this Passover week, there was the other parade, which began on the other side of town. Jesus entered the city astride a donkey, accompanied by a band of supporters.

Two parades: one headed by chariot-riding Pilate, brandishing a sword and accompanied by military force to protect the vested interests of Rome, an awesome spectacle for the bystanders; the other headed by an itinerant preacher on a donkey, brandishing kingdom values of good news for the poor, healing for the sick, and priority for the marginalised, accompanied by a rag tag band of followers, an awe-inspiring vision attracting a palm branch-waving crowd. At first sight it appears no-contest, but we cannot forget the heart of God.

If we stand back from that big day in a big week, and consider a somewhat parallel event when a rag tag alternative group confronted political and military power in the 20th century. The day was 5th June 1989. On one side was the political and military might of the People’s Republic of China, on the other students challenging the economic and political rule. The location, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, a place of military processions.

As the authorities asserted their strength with military hardware headed up by tanks, one protestor broke free from the crowd to stand in front of a rolling tank. The column shuddered to a halt. Stand off. The tank tried to manoeuvre round the protestor and failed, the protestor climbed onto the tank turret, spoke to the soldiers inside, climbed down and as the tank restarted its engines, the protestor blocked the procession again. Finally he was seized and disappeared in the crowd. The fate of the protestor, dubbed Tank Man, is not publicly known, but his actions, captured in memorable images, symbolised the power of peaceful protest against authoritarianism. A big day.

The events of what we know as Palm Sunday, have some parallels to that day in Tiananmen Square. Both featured a military parade of might, both had a gathering promoting an alternative view, and in both, the identified leader of the alternative appeared to have been neutralised by the authorities. In both the story didn’t end then.

Like Pilate’s military parade, Jesus’ palm procession was well-planned. Timing was no accident: Jesus and his supporters would have known of the Governor’s Parade and chose to schedule his parade to coincide with that of Pilate.

The style of his entrance was also carefully orchestrated. His mode of transport and manner of arrival were designed to echo the passage from the Zechariah, well known to Jewish people, which tells of a future king riding into Jerusalem in humility and triumph on a donkey, in coming to command peace and banish weapons of war. In choosing that big day in that big week, Jesus chose to publicly associate himself with Zechariah’s prophetic writing, chose to associate himself with the king who would come in peace and to promote peace.

Tiananmen Tank Man stopped the military might and political ambitions of China in its tracks, it was a clash of cultures. Jesus’ palm-strewn procession into Jerusalem was a similar challenge: a clash of cultures between might and power, and liberation and peace; between vested interests of the elite, and good news for the poor.

The palm procession was a radical affirmation of Jesus’s Galilean ministry, of liberation for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and the coming year of the Lord. It was made in the face of the religious and political authorities on the streets of Jerusalem, and witnessed by a hopeful cheering throng. The palm parade was about authority: whether the authority of Empire and Temple could trump the authority of God’s kingdom as revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus.

It was a protest that took Jesus to the cross. Such is the fate of those who dare to challenge authority. The fate of Tiananmen Square Tank Man isn’t known; many believe that he suffered swift retribution at the hands of the authorities. Jesus, too, suffered at the hands of the authorities. Holy Week witnesses to suffering for God’s sake; it’s pain experienced by many since. Stephen was stoned for alleged blasphemy when he challenged the Temple; Martin Luther King was assassinated for challenging authorities in a racially segregated America. The litany of Christian martyrs is long.

The lesson of this big day in this big week is that standing up for kingdom values may cost, but that ultimately, God’s will is done, ultimately good triumphs over evil, hope over fear, love over hate. Jesus paid the price that week, the political and religious authorities might have breathed a sigh of relief, another zealot neutralised, but they forgot the will of God.

Ask Pilate, and he may remember the country zealot who threatened his rule with an alternative parade. He may remember the trial a few days later when he was pressed to condemn a man in whom he could find no guilt. He may remember handing him over to certain death to maintain the alliance between Temple and State. And he would remember reports from following weeks that Jesus overcame the cross, so emboldening his followers to spread his preaching and teaching far and wide.

Today is a day of celebration, a day to remember when one man and his followers stood up for kingdom values, a day to give thanks in church, and to go forth cheering in hope and joy, to pray and work for peace with justice in the world. So, I end with some words reflecting on this story from Michael Taylor, Baptist minister and one time Director of Christian Aid:
To the city
On a donkey
Jesus came one sunny day:
People shouting,
No one doubting
Jesus Christ had come to stay.
But the cheering
Turned to jeering
And the gladness
Turned to sadness
When they took our Lord away.

In the temple
An example
Of the evil men he made:
Made them angry,
Filled with envy,
And their hatred on him stayed
So they took him,
Friends forsook him,
Then they tried him,
Crucified him,
In a tomb his body laid.

But our story
Ends in glory,
For his death was not the end:
New life springing,
New hope bringing,
Now he’s everybody’s friend.
Every Sunday
Christ is risen,
Every new day
Life is given,
On his love we can depend.

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