In the Western liturgical calendar we find the feast of “Christ the King” (often changed to conform to the draconian canons of political correctness as “The Reign of Christ”). Someone once asked me if we Orthodox kept such a feast, and I answered, “Yes, we do. It is called ‘Palm Sunday’”.
On the first Palm Sunday, Christ entered Jerusalem in triumph and was hailed by the multitudes as the coming Messiah. In John’s eyewitness version of the event, he reported that the people cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). It was long since they had a king, and now at last they had one. (Herod, technically a king, hardly counted. Everyone wanted a real king who ruled over an independent Israel, not a puppet of Rome.) The last real king was Zedekiah, who was pulled from his throne by the Babylonians, had his eyes gouged out, and was sent in chains to Babylon in 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:7). Since that time Israel remained as a province and plaything of the major powers and empires of the day, and as such suffered much humiliation and injustice. But that would all change when Messiah came. He would set things right. He would free Israel from Gentile tyranny and exalt the nation to a place of political supremacy in the world. The hated Pax Romana would be replaced by a Pax Hebraica. Though Jesus never explicitly claimed to be the Messiah (His preferred title was “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch), everyone more or less knew that He must be the Messiah. After all, when the Christ did come, how could he possibly do more miraculous signs than Jesus did? (John 7:31). So it was that when Jesus entered Jerusalem after raising Lazarus from the dead, the whole city exploded in joy and anticipation. His triumphal entry was meant to proclaim His Kingship, and the people responded with an almost-hysterical outpouring of acclamation and enthusiasm: “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10). And what did they mean by “the coming kingdom of our father David”? They meant the death of Rome.
The reason why Jesus avoided the title “Messiah” or Christ in favour of the title “Son of Man” was precisely because in His day the title “Messiah” had become politicised and militarized. The Messiah was, by definition, a warrior, someone who gathered an army and rose up to overthrow the Gentile oppressors by force of arms. The Messianic kingdom would come with the shedding of Gentile blood, and with Gentile corpses piled high in the street. God was on their side, and shining angels would fight along side of courageous men in that battle. The final result would be a free Jerusalem—freed at the cost of the streets flowing with the blood of Rome. If you want to imagine how the crowds of Palm Sunday regarded the coming kingdom, think “Zionism” without the collaboration of the great European powers and with none of the ambiguity.
This is not, however, the kingdom that was actually coming, and Christ was not that sort of king. He proclaimed this loudly with deeds when He entered the Holy City humbly on a donkey, and not proudly on a war-horse; He proclaimed it calmly with words later when He stood before Pilate. In that interrogation, Pilate, having received the one purported to be a threat to Rome, tried to understand if Jesus could really be the threat His accusers said He was. Jesus didn’t seem to him to be the fanatical fire-brand the Sanhedrin insisted He was. Pilate looked at Him and said, “Are You the king of the Jews?” Jesus explained that He was, but that His kingdom was not of this world. If it had been of this world, then His servants would be fighting that He not be delivered up the to the Jews, but as it was, His kingdom was not of this world. Pilate pounced on the admission: “So then You are a king?” Then Jesus told him what His kingship entailed: “For this I have been born and for this I have come into the the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:33f). Jesus knew of course where such witness and truth-telling would lead. It would lead to a cross. “This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Be sure of it: Jesus was not crucified despite His goodness, but rather because of it. Speaking the truth to power and bearing divine witness in this world always leads to suffering.
The people of Palm Sunday thought that the Messiah was the one who would kill the Romans. As it turned out, the Messiah was the one who would be killed by the Romans to save the whole world. Though they could not then have known it, this is what it meant for them to take the palm branches in their hands that day and acclaim Him as King—to hear His voice speaking the truth and to follow Him, speaking the truth themselves. What that in turn would mean for them, the history of martyrdom revealed. To speak the truth in a world which loves and prefers lies always means suffering for the one speaking the truth. The darkness of the world and the death of Jesus meant that all of His future followers would be martyric and follow Him to the cross.
That remains our task and our calling today. We are now the people of Palm Sunday. It is we who now hold the palm branches in our hands and acclaim Jesus as our King. We too must speak the truth, even if we are shouted down by the world and pay a price. Palm Sunday revealed Jesus as the King of Israel, the One who came into the world to bear witness to the truth. Holding those palms means we must hear His voice and speak His truth.