The Day Jesus Was King
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:38-40
When Jesus called Nathanael, he replied: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel” (John 1:49). Throughout the days of His teaching and miracle-working his disciples were admonished to tell no man that he was the anointed one, but there came a day, ever remembered among Christians as Palm Sunday, when Jesus was acclaimed as king. The dramatic climax of Jesus’ work one earth is especially evident in the Gospel of John. There is the great miracle at Bethany of the mastery of the last enemy in the raising of Lazarus (Luke 11:1–45), and again the visit to Mary and Martha, where Jesus allowed Himself to be anointed with pure nard so that the house was filled with its fragrance (12:1–9). At that time Jesus established the recognition of His glory as the source of all charity: “The poor you have always with you, but you do not always have me” (12:8). He had become popular; the Pharisees fretted that the whole world was running after Him (John 12:19). Greeks came to His disciples with the request, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (20–23). The climax of the great drama was near. “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified…. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (23–25). And with these words the story that is Passion Week unfolds, beginning with the popular proclamation that after exile to Babylon and unsuccessful rebellion in the days of the Maccabees, Jesus is the long-awaited king. He commands the ass and her colt on which He will enter the city of His father David with the words: “The Lord has need of them” (Matthew 21:3). Crowds greet Him with Hosannas as He rides into the city, laying their cloaks in the way and strewing palm branches before him (Matthew 21:4–7, Mark 11:1–10, Luke 19:35–40). John sees this triumphal entry as the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Zechariah:
Isaiah had promised: “Behold a king shall rein in justice” (32:1), and when Gabriel was sent from God to foretell His birth, the angel told His mother: He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, And He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; And of His kingdom there will be no end. Luke 1:32–34
There then follows what Johannine tradition remembers as the great example of Christian life, when Jesus washes the feet of His disciples saying, “If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14–15). And then the great passion discourse: the promise that Jesus goes to prepare a place for us (13:36–14:7), the reminder to Philip that he who has seen Him has seen the Father (14:8–11), the great doctrine of participation illustrated by the image of the vine and its branches (15:1–11), the warning that His disciples will be hated in this world (15:18–16:4), and finally the great high-priestly prayer in which Jesus commits the Church to His father’s care (17). What Synoptic tradition, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, remember most vividly, and what the Church would never forget, is the supper Jesus shared with His disciples in the night when He was betrayed, when He gave them, and the Church in Him, His very self (Matthew 26:26–29). Jesus then came before Pilate to answer the rumor that He had made Himself the king of Israel. Pilate’s question, “Are you a king?” participates in the mystery that is the Gospel. Pilate knew that Jesus coveted nothing that Pilate himself possessed; Jesus did not aspire to political power in Tiberius’ empire, but He also knew that Jesus was the king of Israel in some half-seen way that evoked his prescient question, to which Jesus replied: “You have said so.” Then He was presented to the crowd and mocked: “Behold your king.” And then the crucifixion, with the title fixed above, written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. When the Pharisees had rebuked His disciples for proclaiming Jesus’ kingship He answered, “If they were silent the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). The citizens of Jerusalem shouting praises as they threw palm branches before the donkey that carried Him were acknowledging, perhaps more truly than they knew, a truth to which all creation now bears witness silently but which all nature will sing out when the King returns. The Gospels have a way not only of teaching truths and principles but also of showing us them incarnate, enfleshed in time. One such truth is the meaning of the cross; that he who dies bears much fruit, which will be enacted on Good Friday. Another is the truth that Christ is the king. Jesus had taught humility. He had refused to proclaim His messiahship and declined the place of a king who ruled over His subjects through the power of the tyrant, showing instead that royal character consists in the king’s giving of His life for His people. There would be nothing regal as the world understands royal power in His death, and the placard was intended with irony, but He could not leave this world without planting in time the fact that He was and is the king of Israel, deserving of all the glory creation could offer. Bearing the praises of Jerusalem was also part of the suffering of the Passion of Christ. Jesus knew what was in man (John 2:25); He knew that among those who shouted His praises were others who would stand in the courtyard of Pilate’s Praetorium shouting for His crucifixion. He knew that by at last taking His place as what Jerusalem would see as a political figure the Romans would be threatened, just as His claim to be the Son of God would enrage the Jews who could not believe that a man without an army could be the Messiah. But the one drama that is not a mirror of reality but reality itself, the life of God become man, must be played out. Thus Christ the king rode into Jerusalem amidst the acclamation of the crowd who had come to the Passover Feast. This must take place because every reality of the future kingdom is rooted in this world. The tired figure riding into Jerusalem must foretell the fulfillment of royal rule in the glorious King who would and will return. The teacher mounted on the lowly ass was in the order of God’s reality the one mounted on the great white horse, leading the victorious armies of heaven, His vesture dipped in blood, on whose robe and on whose thigh is inscribed eternally King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). The man hanging on the cross from whose side flowed blood and water is He whom the prophet John saw as the Lamb enthroned, standing, yet slain as though in sacrifice, surrounded by the adoration of angels, men, and nature, in the heart of the Blessed Trinity (Revelation 5:6–14). These things that belong to God’s future are among the things we, instructed by history as we know it, cannot now bear (John 16:12), which the citizens of Jerusalem could not bear, but which are revealed to the Church because the Holy Spirit has come, so that we like the Prophet John know in full the meaning of the divine drama that unfolds before us in the Passion Narrative, a story showing to the world in time, though the door opened into heaven by the prophetic gift (Revelation 4:1), glimpses of the truth we cannot now bear. Every event in Jesus’ life is foretold by the prophets, enacted in time, and known by the Church that possesses now in faith the glory that is coming when the King returns.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion… Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass (9:9).