Mystery of Palm Sunday
St. Philaret of Moscow
On the Prophecy and Mystery of Palm Sunday
"All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass." – S. Matth. xxi. 4,5.
As it is pleasant to look upon the image of the sun reflected in a clear stream, where, if not so dazzling as in the heavens, still it shines with a light more accessible to the spectator; so also it is pleasant with the spiritual eye, that is, with a mind disposed to divine meditation, to behold in the pure sources of Israel, or in the prophetic sayings flowing from the Spirit of God, the image of the Sun of Truth, our Lord Jesus Christ, although revealed not in so full a light as in the Gospel, yet in such outlines in which the attentive contemplator can easily discern His Divine attributes, His miraculous works, and His deep and saving mysteries.
The holy Evangelist Matthew himself has not deemed it superfluous in the Gospel narrative to show us the glory and mystery of the present day described by the Prophet Zechariah. Let us read the exact words of the Prophet, which are somewhat abridged by the Evangelist: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh unto thee; He is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt of an ass (Zechariah ix. 9.). There are two subjects which we may consider here: the wonderful accomplishment of the prophecy, and the new prophecy contained in its fulfillment.
If even the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah had not yet been revealed, one might from the prophecy itself sufficiently conclude that it contains a promise of a wonderful event. Who could have expected that any king should make his triumphant entry into a royal city on a colt, the foal of an ass? And if even any one had thus appeared as a king, could one have thought that he would have been received with sincere joy and shouts of triumph, and not with ridicule and contempt? From ancient times victorious kings have ridden on steeds; peaceful nobles, in the simplicity of ancient custom, did indeed sometimes travel upon asses, but for a king to mount a colt, the foal of an ass, that is, one born of a working ass, used as a beast of burden, and moreover a young colt, untrained, not yet separated from its mother, – was it becoming for a king, was it likely he would do so? How then could Zechariah think of foretelling the solemn entry and reception of a king "sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass?" How could such a prophecy be fulfilled? Both these circumstances could only have take place in an extraordinary and divinely arranged way. It is on account of the extraordinary character of the event foretold, that the Jews themselves, from olden times even unto this day, acknowledge that the prophecy of Zechariah concerning the meek king relates to the Messiah, or in other words to Christ, though they, poor men, do not recognize Him in the meek Jesus.
But if in the prophecy of Zechariah, we are able to perceive the extraordinary character of the event announced by him, then will an attentive investigation of the event itself reveal unto us something still more wonderful, and still more divine in its origin.
When a king has to make an triumphant entry into a royal city, the triumph is arranged by preconcerted measures and preparations. But we see nothing of the kind in our Lord until the very day, almost until the very hour of His royal entry into Jerusalem. Yesterday He supped at Bethany, where He had raised Lazarus from the dead, and as Mary anointed His feet with spikenard, He spoke not of the preliminary arrangements for His royal triumph, but of those for His burial. There were many people there, "but they came not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also (S. John xii. 9.). This morning He is on His way to Jerusalem accompanied by His disciples, as He was wont on other days. "He went before," writes S. Luke, "ascending up to Jerusalem (S. Luke xix. 28.). There are no preparations whatever; no one thinks about His enthronement. "These things understood not His disciples at the first" (S. John xii. 16.). All begins suddenly, and as suddenly is accomplished. "And it came to pass," approaching Bethphage, and not far from Jerusalem itself, He issues an unexpected command: "And it came to pass, when He was come nigh to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount called the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples, saying, Go ye into the village over against you, in the which at your entering ye shall find a colt tied, whereon yet never man sat; loose him, and bring him hither" (S. Luke xix. 29, 30.). Or according to another Evangelist, more circumstantially, "ye shall find as ass tied, and a colt with her (S. Matth. xxi.2.). Observe attentively in how truly a divine manner does our divine King act. He sees the prophecy, sees the moment approaching when it must be fulfilled, but as yet there are no means for its accomplishment. He looks not with His bodily eye, but with the eye of His Omniscience, and that which is wanted is directly found. "Ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her." It is wonderful how the means are found, but none the less wonderful is the way in which they are used. "Loose them, and bring them hither," says He to the two disciples. "Lord" the messengers might have said, "how can we do this, how can we loose another man's colt and lead it whither its master knows not?" Truly this might have embarrassed the Apostles; truly the evident impossibility of doing what was commanded might have provoked the disobedience of the messengers, as in another instance the meeting with difficulties was followed by their flight and even denial of their Lord; and then the whole work would have failed, and the prophecy have remained unfulfilled. But in this case also did the divine knowledge of our King foresee the readiness of His messengers, and His divine power over the hearts of men fortified them against all doubts. The same knowledge foresaw the question of the owner of the colt, "Why do ye loose him?" This same power over hearts endowed them beforehand with an answer seemingly far from convincing to a stranger, yet one which proved indeed irresistible, "The Lord hath need of him" (S. Luke xix. 31.). And the messengers took and brought the colt, knowing not to whom it belonged; and the owner of the colt gave it not knowing to whom, and for what he gave it. Meanwhile the multitude, not by kingly order convoked, but "that were come to the feast" (S. John xii. 12.); not at the voice of a herald, but drawn by the glory of the resurrection of Lazarus, went forth to meet Jesus, and seized with sudden enthusiasm, instead of prepared decorations, they spread their clothes in the way; instead of royal banners and arms, they take branches of trees, precede, follow and welcome the meek King, quietly borne, without any royal pomp, by a colt, which no human hand had until this moment trained to bear any burden. How came all these sudden things to pass? Truly all this was done "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet." That which seems impossible of accomplishment, was indeed accomplished that it might be plainly seen that it was the work of Him to Whom "nothing shall be impossible" (S. Luke i. 37.).
We see the wonderful fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy. Let us strain our sight and we shall perceive in the event itself a new prophecy of a still more wonderful event.
What of a truth does the royal entry of the Lord into Jerusalem signify? Wherefore so wonderful a prediction? Why such a multitude of miracles? What is the intention of such unwonted arrangements? What is the result of these Divine works? What is the fruit of so majestic, but at the same time so transient an appearance of the King of Zion? Like lightning does the kingdom of heaven show itself over Jerusalem, and like lightning is it swallowed up in the region of darkness. The people are as yet only preparing to go forth to meet the King, Who "is just and having salvation"; and already malice is taking counsel how to destroy both Him and Lazarus who has glorified Him: "The chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death" (S. John xii. 10.). The children are still shouting in the temple from the fulness of their hearts, and already the rulers and wise men, "the chief priests and the scribes, were sore displeased" (S. Matth. xxi. 15.), and from the superabundance of their malice were unable to hide their displeasure. Today they cry to the daughter of Zion, "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee"; and after a few days this same daughter of Zion – that is, the people of Jerusalem – will say, "We have no King" (S. John xix. 15.); and the King Himself will renounce this phantom of royalty: "My kingdom," He will say, "is not of this world" (S. John viii. 36.). Today it is, "Hosanna to the Son of David" (S. Matth. xxi. 9.), and soon afterwards, "Crucify Him!" (S. John xix. 15.) Wherefore, then, this bright but transient spectacle? Thou hast already said, I may be answered, "That all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet." I said, that all this was so wonderfully foretold that the word of God might be known in the prophecy; and so wonderfully has it also been fulfilled, that the word of God might be evident in its very accomplishment. But wherefore did the word of God precede, and the work of God follow? When God, Who "spake and it was done" (Ps. xxxiii. 9.), "and behold, it was very good" (Gen. i. 31.), sends forth His word, that the work itself may be afterwards fulfilled, it needs must be that thereby should be produced some real, substantial, and lasting good, and not a transient vision alone. Otherwise, why should the work of God have been undertaken? Why should the word of God have been sent forth, and why should it have condescended to such apparently insignificant details as the age of the colt? But perhaps these subtle questions already seem to be bold, though as yet they cannot obtain their full solution. Do you not observe, at least, that in the glory of the present day there must lie hid a certain mystery, although we have not reached its revelation? Can you make no conjecture concerning it, though you may not as yet divine its solution?
Having gone so far, I am silent, that I may not go beyond what may seem credible. Let S. Chrysostom (Com. on S. Matth. chap. 66.) speak in my stead, and solve you this problem. "Here," says he, explaining the mystery of the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem, "the Church is signified by the colt, and the new people which was once unclean, but which after Jesus sat on them became clean. And see the image preserved throughout: I mean that the disciples loose the asses; for by the Apostles both they (that is, the Jews,) and we, (that is, we Christians of the Gentiles,) were called, by the Apostles we were brought near. But because our acceptance provoked them also to emulation, therefore the ass appears following the colt. For after CHRIST had sat on the Gentiles, then shall they also come, moving us to emulation (emulating us). And Paul, declaring this, said: 'That blindness in part is happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in, and so all Israel shall be saved' (Rom. xi. 25, 26.). For that it was a prophecy is evident from what is said. For neither would the prophet have cared to express with such great exactness the age of the ass, unless this had been so. But not these things only are signified by what is said, but also that the Apostles should bring them with ease: for as here no man gainsaid them so as to keep the asses, so neither with regard to the Gentiles was any one able to prevent them of those who were before masters of them. But He does not sit on the bare colt, but on the Apostle's garments: for after they had taken the colt, they gave up all, even as Paul also said: 'I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls' (2 Cor. xii. 5.). But mark how tractable the colt, how, being unbroken and having never known the rein, he was not restive, but went on orderly; which thing itself was a prophecy of the future, signifying the submissiveness of the Gentiles, and their sudden conversion to good order. For all things did that word work which said, 'Loose him and bring him to Me'; so that the unmanageable became orderly, and the unclean thenceforth clean."
So far S. Chrysostom. Let us repeat the lesson contained in this mystery of CHRIST, so as to render it, if possible, more intelligible to ourselves. The entry of the Lord into Jerusalem is not the mere manifestation of His present kingdom, but rather a prophecy and a fore-shadowing of His future kingdom. His kingdom is not this Jerusalem, which shall soon be destroyed, nor is it the country of Judea, which shall soon be conquered and laid waste, but the Church, against which even "the gates of hell shall not prevail" (S. Matth. xvi. 18.). The ass and the colt upon which He sitteth during His royal progress, typify the two classes of people over whom He is come to reign spiritually – the Jews and the Gentiles. The ass bearing the yoke is the image of the Jews, who have long borne upon their necks the yoke of the law, "a yoke which," as the best of them confess, "neither our fathers nor we are able to bear" (Acts xv. 10.), and which it was therefore necessary to change for the easy yoke and light burden of CHRIST. The untrained colt typifies the Gentiles, untamed by doctrine, and ignorant of the law. The Apostles take the ass and its colt without hindrance, that is, the Apostles, notwithstanding all impediments, subdue Jews and Gentiles to the Kingdom of CHRIST. The Lord mounts the colt, and the ass follows: that is, it is the Gentiles who first, for the most part, submit to the Kingdom of CHRIST, and when the predestined number of Gentiles shall have entered into the fulness of the Church, then will also the remaining Jews be converted and rejoin them. The untrained colt submissively bears the King: that is, the untaught, and until now self-willed Gentiles, are soon trained by the doctrine of the law of CHRIST. Garments are spread before the King: that is, perfect followers of CHRIST resign everything to Him. Children welcome and praise the King: that is, hearts childlike in their simplicity and sincerity receive CHRIST in faith, and glorify Him by love.
Christians! sons of the Kingdom of CHRIST! If we do behold the glory, or penetrate the mystery of today's solemnity, let us not suffer it to pass by as something that concerns us not; for in this case we should remain aliens and strangers to the Kingdom of CHRIST. Does the Lord send any of us on any mission? then let us obey like the Apostles, without demur. Does He require anything from us? let us surrender everything without contradiction, in the same manner as the unknown man, at the name of the Lord, gave up his property; let us also willingly give up everything, although it were at the cost of what is most necessary to us, as did those who spread their garments on His way. Has any one of us walked until now in the way of his own heart? let him then, from this day forth, bow himself under the yoke of CHRIST. Is any one thinking that he has trained himself by the keeping of the moral law? let him follow CHRIST if he would be perfect. Let us all exclaim with a sincere childlike heart: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" We will Him to reign over us eternally. Amen.