When the great crowd that had come to the feast heard
that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,
they took palm branches and went out to meet him, and cried out:
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,
even the king of Israel.”
Jesus found an ass and sat upon it, as is written:
Fear no more, O daughter Zion;
see, your king comes, seated upon an ass’s colt.
His disciples did not understand this at first,
but when Jesus had been glorified
they remembered that these things were written about him
and what they had done to him.
Every Gospel, every account of what Jesus had done, lived in memory, often finding its place in prophetic tradition before it was written down. This is especially true of the Gospel of John. After Jesus had cleansed the temple the disciples remembered that Psalm 68:10 prophesied: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” After He had risen His disciples remembered that He had identified His body as the true temple of God’s presence (John 2:22). After Jesus prophesied that His disciples would be forbidden the synagogue, indeed sought out and killed, Jesus reminds the disciples that He has told them these things so that “when the time comes for them to happen, you will remember that I told you of it” (John 16:4).
It is characteristic of life that we often do not know what is happening while it is going on, and this is especially true of the apostolic memory, that the apostles did not know what was happening until after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after Pentecost they were able to see the import of the moments they had shared with Jesus. They had not understood the meaning of Jesus’ life in the context of the Scriptures until on the road to Emmaus, in the very face of His resurrection, Jesus told them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer thee things and enter into His glory. And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
In the text superscript the Johannine author or authors are remembering the day Jesus entered Jerusalem mounted on a lowly donkey to the acclaim of the Jerusalem crowd, some enthusiastic because He had raised Lazarus, but among whom there must have been those who hours later would shout, “Crucify him” before the Roman procurator. Jesus’ entry into David’s city was to be located in the context of Zechariah 9:9:
Your king comes to you.
Triumphant and victorious is He,
humble and riding on an ass
on a colt the foal of an ass.,
The authors might have cited the Angel’s promise to Mary: “God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32). Yet there is no doubt that the Johannine author, looking back, now understood that what happened, remembered through the lens of Zechariah’s prophecy, made Jesus the heir to David’s throne and His entrance into Jerusalem an event pregnant with meaning for the future.
Jesus must have known that it would end well only in terms of the divine promise, while seeming to human eyes an abject failure, the death of another revolutionary prophet. But Jesus could not make the great sacrifice before staking His claim to be the King of Israel. His success, especially His raising of Lazarus from death, had inspired the crowd and infuriated the Pharisees. The end was now near, the hour toward which His life had been moving, it remained only to assure the reader that the Greeks would be included in the great apostolic mission: “Among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to Him, Sir we wish to see Jesus. Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Phillip and they told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be Glorified.” Then follows the passion narrative that occupies the last half of the book of John.
Having spoken of the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ triumphal entry as the fulfilling of Zechariah, the text continues: they remembered what they had done with Him (or to Him). The exact meaning of these words is difficult to capture. The phrase might be translated idiomatically to refer to the things that had happened to Jesus but as the verb is plural and active it needs the disciples as its subject. So this leaves the author reflecting on what the disciples had done at and after the triumphal entry: Jesus ‘washing of the disciples’ feet, the last supper, the divine instruction to the apostles in chapter 14–17, the betrayal and trial and death. If the phrase “what they had done” is taken extensively, it might refer to their role in the triumphal entry and in what followed, when the disciples played a less than noble part. Jesus knew what would happen: “The hour is coming indeed it has come when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone” (John 16:31.) From the time of His arrest, Jesus was left alone; there followed Jesus’ betrayal and trial, and at the end, as far as we are told, only one disciple stood with His mother witnessing His death (John 19;26).
A political failure: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem signaled no successful revolution, and an eschatological disappointment as well; the Jewish expectation that the Messiah might suddenly inaugurate the supernatural end of history went unfulfilled, this event was still the greatest earthly, historical, representation of Christ’s eternal kingship, the sole occasion when Jesus, having previously counseled his followers to tell no man, permitted publicity. Jesus left this world in pain and shame, only to fulfill His promise by appearing in glory to Peter, Paul, John, and other disciples, sending His Spirit with life changing and confirming power at Pentecost.
After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem there will be no other triumph in history until He returns in glory. The spread of Christianity, the seeming triumph of the Church at times when it was culturally dominant, eucharistic congresses attended by tens of thousands, even the glory of the Eucharist when it is celebrated with extrinsic beauty, none of these, although they may sometimes reflect His glory, is the triumph of Christ, which is only realized perfectly in the lives of the saints. Christ’s triumph will come when He returns in glory, bringing the saints with Him to live forever in His presence in the renewed creation, where, as Irenaeus says, we will ever have conversation with our Creator.