Entry into the City, John August Swanson, 1990.
Monday of Holy Week 2017
John August Swanson’s wonderful painting “Entry into the City” captures in its large scope, multitude of images and characters, and in particular the setting sun amidst the dark and roiling clouds, much of the pathos of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the last week of his life on earth, the week we call Holy Week. Swanson’s painting will form the focus of this year’s Holy Week reflections.
In their book The Last Week (2006), Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan think it is probable that there were two processions into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – one of the regnant Roman power and the other of Jesus enacting his upside-down kingdom. Whether or not this happened on the same day so as to provide such a poignant point-counterpoint event may not be as probable as Borg and Crossan suppose. But both processions did occur and it is fitting to place them in implacable opposition as our two writers do. On with the story as they tell it.
Pontius Pilate the Roman governor assigned to Judea and Jerusalem would have come with his soldiers to Jerusalem for Passover. An impressive and ostentatious would have entered Jerusalem from the west. Cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold and the like glittering in the sun.
Down from the Mount of Olives in the north came another procession. No pomp or circumstance, dressed like the people who accompanied him, riding on a donkey trailed by his own followers and a band of peasants and commoners, some of whom he had healed and perhaps even one he raised from the dead, Jesus of Nazareth entered the city too.
Here was the truly triumphant procession and the true rejoicing of the season for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. This was indeed a radical procession. It thumbed its nose at the Roman Empire and all it stood for.
Then into the temple Jesus goes performing a piece of street theater overturning the tables in the temple and throwing out the moneylenders announcing in uncompromising fashion to the religious leaders that their alignment with the power of Rom was totally unacceptable to God.
He ends the week with a Passover meal, making himself known to his closest followers one more time that his was not the imperial reign they probably hoped for. Not all. Rather by washing their feet as a slave Jesus enacted this last loving act of an upside-down king.
The stage is set. Jesus’ belief in and embodiment of the liberating, inclusive, non-violent, peace-seeking kingdom of God against the oppressive, greedy, elite-loving, peasant-starving kingdom of Rome. The sun and the clouds in Swanson’s painting. An alternative kingdom against the one presently in power. High drama fraught with religious and political meaning.
These two kingdoms were destined to collide. It was unavoidable now. They did. And we know how it turned out. The clouds overtake the setting sun and blot it for an awful time on the Friday of that week as Jesus died, murdered as a traitor on a cross with a sign acclaiming him “King of the Jews” mocking his last desperate breaths.
A question confronts all of us as we walk with Jesus from Palm Sunday to Good Friday: whose side are we on? Are we part of that motley crew of following Jesus fully aware that we are on a collision course with the values of our secular culture? Do we only want to follow Jesus when we think he promises wealth, power and happiness? Will we turn against him when he turns out not to be who we thought he was?