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What Kind of Triumph Do We Seek?
A Sermon on Palm Sunday
We celebrate today the Great Feast of the Triumphal Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. Today Christ enters openly and boldly into the holy city, no longer in secret, no longer hiding Himself to forestall the fury of the Jews, for He knows that His hour to be glorified is now at hand. And so on this day He makes his entry into Jerusalem with glory — at least, in a certain sense with glory.
At this time, the people of Israel were suffering bitterly under Roman occupation. The people of God had once again been subjugated by pagan overlords, and so — just as for their ancestors in Egypt — the promise of God to deliver them from bondage was something for which they yearned with their whole hearts, with an existential intensity of which we comfortable and well-fed Americans can scarcely conceive. And so perhaps we likewise cannot truly fathom the ardent desire and euphoric joy with which they gather around Christ today, crying out: “Hosannah!” which simply means “Save us now!”
The manner in which they received Christ into their city boldly proclaimed their belief that the Lord would lead them to victory over the Roman occupation. When Roman generals had won an exceptionally great victory they were afterward received into Rome by just such a triumphal procession, arrayed in vesture symbolizing their nearness to both kingship and divinity. Likewise, the people of Israel cried out not only “Hosannah!” but also “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!” And the palm branches with which they went out to meet Christ were the quintessential symbol of victory — especially military victory —among the Romans, and in Latin the word palma was often even used in place of the words victoria or triumphalis.
One can therefore understand the consternation of the Jewish rulers, who just prior to this were already in a frenzy of fear that “If we let Him thus alone, all men will believe on Him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (John 11:48). And so some of the Pharisees, beholding the hope of all Israel, yet — blinded by their passions — seeing it rather as the fulfillment of their greatest fears, urged the Lord to forbid His followers from such bold and inflammatory speech. Jesus, however, “answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40).
So indeed it was necessary and right for the crowds to cry out as they did. Yet alas for those among the crowds who did so with their hearts still like those very stones, lacking understanding! And even the disciples themselves “did not understand these things at first” (John 12:16). For the people of Israel were expecting a Messiah who would lead them to earthly freedom, like Moses of old, to “restore again the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). They did not yet realize that the Lord had come to give them heavenly freedom, to restore them again to the Kingdom of God. They expected that He would lead them to victory over Caesar their oppressor, and had as yet no inkling of His true purpose: to lead them to victory over Death itself, which for so many countless lifetimes had held the entire human race in bondage (cf. Hebrews 2:15).
So firmly did the people of Israel believe in their own vision of the coming Messiah that absolutely nothing Christ said or did could convince them otherwise. For He did not make His triumphal entry into the holy city in the manner of the great leaders of men, in a splendid chariot drawn by four magnificent horses; no, He came sitting on the foal of a donkey, the lowest and humblest of creatures. He did not come arrayed in vesture proclaiming His kingship and divinity, but rather clothed in the clay of our human nature, arrayed in the vesture of poverty, and scorned by the learned and mighty men of this world. Again and again He had spoken to them of the coming hour in which He would be betrayed by His closest friends, disowned by His own chosen people, and given over to death at the hands of the very state whom the Israelites so certainly expected Him to overthrow.
And after this He had spoken to them something yet more astonishing, more astonishing than anything that had been heard in all the history of mankind: that after all these things, He Himself would rise from the dead. And the victory which His triumphal entry today celebrates was not a military victory, not a political victory, not any success of insurrection against the oppressive yoke of the hated Empire. The victory triumphantly celebrated today was the resurrection of Lazarus the Four Days Dead, the prefigurement of Christ’s own resurrection and the resurrection of all mankind on the Last Day.
Yet the people did not understand these things. And because they did not understand, because they still clung to their own conceptions and expectations, the same crowds who today shout “Hosannah in the highest!” will, only a few short days later, cry out instead: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
But, brothers and sisters, what right do we have to judge and condemn them for this? Because do we ourselves not often cling to our own conceptions and expectations about God, and about what kind of victories we think He ought to achieve in our lives? Do we ourselves not often desire an earthly kingdom of righteousness? Do we ourselves not often hope for the Lord to defeat those whom we consider to be the enemies of godliness in this life? Do we ourselves not often long for deliverance from all manner of temporal difficulties and afflictions, and hope for mighty acts of divine power to solve the many and various problems which plague our lives in this world?
It is not that these desires are wholly wrong. But they are, at the very least, totally secondary, and not in any way a part of “the one thing needful:” the salvation of our souls. And so each of us must ask ourselves: do these desires and expectations not so often distract us from seeking the Kingdom of Heaven above all that is merely earthly, and from striving to defeat the many passions and sins which hide and make their lairs in our own hearts? Do they not so often distract us from the truth that the chief of all sinners and the greatest opponent of my salvation is none other than I myself? Do they not so often distract us from Christ? Do they not so often distract us from the Cross?
We must take great care, my brothers and sisters, about what kind of conceptions and expectations we have of God, lest, when we see the Cross looming before us in our own lives, we rebel against it, or shrink from it, or resent it, or despair of it, and — having been deceived by our own expectations — we once again betray Him Who was crucified upon it for our sakes.
And if we do so, we will also have betrayed ourselves by our own paltriness of vision and smallness of heart. If indeed Christ had come instead to overthrow Caesar and to free the Jewish people from Roman bondage, who today would know or care at all? The whole story would be relegated to an obscure chapter of ancient history, forgotten by all but a few pedantic scholars. But today, the very symbol of Christ’s purported defeat at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the Jewish rulers is emblazoned throughout every corner of the world, symbolizing nothing less than the defeat of death itself, the advent of life eternal, the forgiveness of every sin and every transgression, the deification of human nature, the union of mankind with God Himself throughout all time and all eternity, and the renewal of all the world in the Kingdom of Heaven.
So let us be of good courage, and let us celebrate triumphantly today not only the victories, but also every such “defeat” which the loving Providence of God allows to come to pass in our own lives as well, knowing that these too will be turned also by the omnipotent might of God into our own victory, our own eternal life, the forgiveness of our own sins, and our own deification and union with God.
“Why?” we might ask. Why must the unspeakable horrors and tragedies of Holy Week interpose between the joy of today’s triumph and the joy of Pascha night? Why did Christ need to ascend the Cross in order to save us? And why, after He has already won the victory, do we ourselves also need to follow in His footsteps, and embrace the Cross in our own lives? Why is all of this suffering and pain and misery and grief necessary?
St. Isaac the Syrian give us the clear and simple answer: because only through the Cross could God show the unfathomable greatness of His love for us, His wayward and unworthy children. As the Lord Himself said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And as St. Paul said: “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). Even as we mocked Him, betrayed Him, spit upon Him, and condemned the Lord of Glory as deserving the ignominious fate of the most wretched criminal, the immortal God loved us enough to die for our sakes, freely and unasked, while enduring every suffering and pain and torment and humiliation possible. Even knowing that not all of us would accept the greatness of the gift. Even knowing that those of us who do wish to accept it nevertheless trample upon it through our sins over and over again, time after time, on every single moment of every single day that has passed since that great and terrible day of His crucifixion.
All of this He did, in order that we, “being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that [we] might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).
But, my brothers and sisters, for this to happen the love of Christ must become our own love also. And that can only be accomplished when we too, freely and willingly, join our Lord and ascend the Cross together with Him. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that Christ enters today into the holy city triumphantly. And it must be for this reason, and this reason alone, that we also enter into the holy city of our hearts this Great and Holy Week: to be crucified together with our Lord, to become “partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed, [we] may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:13).
Hosannah in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.