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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

The Geography of Palm Sunday

Today we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the start of the great week of Our Lord’s passion. The liturgy throws us into the action of Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a donkey. But that is only half the picture. Jesus’ arrival on a donkey has been planned, it is a pastoral choice, an acted parable. The liturgy points us to the prophet Zechariah (9. 9) who speaks about the king coming to us riding on a donkey. But the significance of his arrival is also sharpened in focus by the geography and timetable of Jerusalem at that time.

Jesus enters Jerusalem on the south side of the city through the water gate. (At the green arrow above) It is the entrance nearest to Bethany where he has been staying with his disciples. So, he comes down from the hills and is surrounded by his disciples and a crowd has gathered to greet him. Perhaps some disciples were sent ahead to let people know that he was coming. It is a gathering of the poor and ordinary folk of the city and the many pilgrims who would have already heard his preaching. It was a humble procession of the people.

However, on the other side of Jerusalem, at about the same time, Pilate was arriving from Caesarea. ( His procession entered Jerusalem at the green arrow above) He always came for this week to strengthen the garrison in case there were any uprising in the city. He stayed with Herod in his palace and would have entered the gate closest to his palace on the west of the city. This procession would have been accompanied with the rattle of armour, military horses and armed men with flags flying. It was a demonstration of power, control, and empire.

Jesus’ entry is timed and staged to contrast with that display of power. It is a procession greeted by the cries of the poor who recognise the authenticity of Jesus’ good news, palm branches are waved by ordinary people and there are no flags flying, no armour, no threats.

Two processions, two mission statements. One saying people cannot be trusted and need to be controlled, taxed and exploited and the other reassuring people of the dignity of each person and the need for gentleness and humility. The clash between the values of the Roman Empire and the Kingdom that Jesus wants to bring are clearly drawn in these prophetic processions. The clash with the Jewish leaders would soon follow. Holy week has begun.

Which procession will you join this week?

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