Today we celebrate the feast of Palm Sunday, or the Triumphant Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. It is one of the seven major feasts of our Church and one that we celebrate with great joy and excitement.
We take great pleasure in decorating the Church with palm branches, the tune of the festive hymns is joyful, and the processions around the Church are very uplifting. Truly it is one of the favorite times of the Church year for us. There are so many points to contemplate on today’s feast, but before we attempt to touch on a few points together I would like to ask a question. Why do we celebrate feasts in the Church?
Are they simply commemorations of historical events like when we celebrate secular holidays such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day? The answer of course is no. We celebrate feasts because they are eternal events. For example the specific day that our Lord rose from the dead is an historical event, but the eternal mystery of His Resurrection is just as much a reality today, now, tomorrow, as it ever was. We celebrate feasts in order to enter into those realities, to experience them now in our lives, for our salvation. As another example of how this reality is always present in the Word of God, we can look to a common reading from the Holy Bible. When we read throughout the Church year about the Samaritan Woman, are we just reflecting on how beautiful it was that the Samaritan Woman came to accept Christ two thousand years ago? No, the truth is that today I am the Samaritan Woman, and today, now, Christ is asking me if want to drink from the Living Water. And even if my answer is “yes Lord give me that Living Water! Tomorrow He will be asking me the same question! That is, the truth, reality and experience of the encounter between Christ and the Samaritan Woman is true, real, and experienced by us as Christians at this moment.
This is also how we must approach the events of today’s great feast, the feast of our Lord’s Triumphant Entry to Jerusalem. I know you are very familiar with details of today’s events. Our Lord enters into the great city of Jerusalem on which will be the week of His Passion and Crucifixion. He asks two of His disciples to bring a donkey. He then enters the city sitting on the donkey, and the people spread their garments on the road, and many cut palm branches and spread them also on the road, and the crowds went before the Lord shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! And the prophecy is fulfilled “Tell the daughter of Zion , “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Thus the Lord entered into Jerusalem as a King! But what kind of King is He?
Throughout the history of the world we have had many Kings that have conquered cities and nations. Today in many parts of the world we have Kings. But there is one unconquered territory that has alluded men of power throughout all history, and this is the human heart, and its sole conqueror is Christ the King! Today we celebrate Christ the King who enters into our personal Jerusalem, our hearts, where he saves us from sins, our misery, our darkness, and our death! St. Augustine emphasized this point when he says, “For Christ was not the king of Israel so that he might exact a tax or equip an army with weaponry and visibly vanquish an enemy. He was the king in that he rules minds, in that he gives counsel for eternity, in that he leads into the kingdom of heaven, for those who believe, hope and love. The people shout, “Hosanna!” meaning “save now!”, or “Lord grant salvation!”. St. Saverus explains this mystery saying, “Now there was never any king, simultaneously just, a redeemer, gentle and seated on a donkey who came to Jerusalem, unless this is he who alone is King of kings, God the Redeemer, Jesus. He is kind, gentle and abundant in mercy for all those who call upon Him, as it is written.” The question is, however, is He able to enter into our hearts and our lives and remain as our King? In order to answer this question, we need to delve more deeply into today’s readings.
We will discuss three main points:
- In what manner does Christ approach us as King?
- How do we accept Him as our King?
- What does it mean if He is the King of my life?
First, how does Christ approach us as our King? We read today that Christ enters Jerusalem on a donkey. He does not come with a fleet of chariots and soldiers. He does not come with force, and in fact, would not have even been able to enter the city unless the people had allowed Him to do so! Christ our Lord comes to us today in complete gentleness and humility waiting for us to accept Him to enter our Jerusalem. That is why He says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and OPENS THE DOOR, I will come in to him…” (Rev. 3:20). St. Macarius the Great exhorts us, “The Lord is always knocking at the doors of our hearts, that we may open to Him, that He may enter in and rest in Our souls. He says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any man will open unto Me, I shall come in unto him” (Rev. 3:20). To this end He endured to suffer many things, giving His own body unto death, and purchasing us out of bondage, in order that He might come to our soul and make His abode with it.. ..His food and His drink, His clothing and shelter and rest is in our souls. Therefore He is always knocking, desiring to enter into us.. Let us then receive Him, and bring Him within ourselves; because He is our food and our drink and our eternal life, and every soul that has not now received Him within and given Him rest, or rather found rest in Him, has no inheritance in the kingdom of heaven with the saints, and cannot enter into the heavenly city.. Our Lord knows that to be ruler of our hearts He cannot force Himself upon us! He respects our free will. But the Lord is always sitting at the gates of Jerusalem waiting for us to allow Him to enter. He is standing at the door of our hearts waiting for us to open.
This leads us to the second point which is how do we accept Christ as our King? We have seen throughout our journey in Lent, the constant theme of Repentance. We see that today as well but we also see something else in the Gospel reading from this morning during Matins. This morning’s Gospel reading is the story of Zacchaeus. It is interesting that in the 4 Gospel readings during the Liturgy, the readings are all restricted to the event of our Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem. So why the reading of Zacchaeus this morning? This is the beauty of our Church’s readings whose organization is guided by the Holy Spirit – and leads us to the true spiritual meanings of each day’s events. The story of Zacchaeus shows us how we can accept Christ as our King. Luke 19:1-10 Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. “Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Zacchaeus was a Tax Collector, a chief among them, a Jew and a sinner. It was accepted that those who helped the Romans collect taxes from among the Jews were allowed to take more than was due and pocket the rest. So he was a thief and a liar. He was ruled by money and power.
However, something very amazing in this story and many others in the Gospels takes place. Zacchaeus is very anxious to see Christ. Regardless of his sinful life, he was still able to preserve in his heart a feeling for what is true. This is the human condition that we all inherit. St Gregory of Nyssa explains. “But we need to know that here on earth there has never been and never will be, true and perfect happiness and prosperity; for all our prosperity and happiness is only in God. No one will ever find true happiness and spiritual prosperity without God or outside God. Nothing in this world but God can fill our heart or fully satisfy our desires. A fire cannot be put out with brushwood and oil, because only water will put it out. In exactly the same way, the desires of the human heart cannot be satisfied with the goods of this world, because only the grace of God can quench the thirst of our desires. Zacchaeus’s problem was that he was short and could not see the Lord because of the crowd around our Lord Jesus as He entered into Jericho. Many times in the Gospels we are told that Christ was surrounded by crowds, which prevented the people from “seeing” Him. The Fathers of Church teach us that these crowds are all of the obstacles that are between us and the Lord – they are our temptations and passions that lure us away from Him. They are the distractions in our life from our true goal. In spite of Zacchaeus’ obstacles his desire to see Christ was strong as he was determined to find a way, and thus he climbed a tree. In doing so, he, being someone well known in the community, takes the significant risk of people laughing at him and mocking him. And yet, he is unconcerned about the opinions of others, his only concern is to see Christ. He knew in his heart that Christ was no mere prophet, he would not risk all for just a prophet – he knew that this was the Life Giver, the Savior, and comforter of his soul. He was fixated on him and nothing else. Again, the Fathers of the Church teach us that it is not our sins that pose the greatest obstacle in our relationship with God, but rather our fear of mockery and ridicule by others. Our pride and egos are always more concerned about other people’s view of us. The only alternative to this captivity is humility. Zacchaeus was short, that is he was full of pride, he was blind. Therefore he climbed the tree, that is, he ascended the virtuous heights of humility, so he could see Christ! This is what St. John Climacus advises us when he says, “Let us strive with all our might to reach that summit of humility, or let us at least climb onto her shoulders. Do you see that Zacchaeus had two problems, his being short, and the crowd? The one was internal and the external? The solution to the first overcame the obstacle of the second. The internal is his pride and the external is his greed and love of money. Now, this is the amazing part – Here is our Lord surrounded by a multitude of people, maybe some of them have followed Him for miles. And yet our Lord looks to Zacchaeus up in the tree as says, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” Is that not unfair of our Lord to give such special attention to Zacchaeus over all the other people that had been following him much longer? The Lord, who knows the heart of everyone, could see that Zacchaeus’s desire for Him was greater than the others – he knew that Zacchaeus was filled with a deep and real humility. Christ knew that Zacchaeus’ heart was open for Him to reign as King. And therefore he said to him, ” come down for today I must enter your Jerusalem as your King! Zacchaeus response of course was that “he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully! Here the words of King David the Psalmist ring loudly, “LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will prepare their heart” (Psalm 10:17) and again “For He satisfies the longing soul, And fills the hungry soul with goodness”. (Psalm 107:9). The others weren’t fixated on Christ, they were still concerned with judging others – that is why they complained saying “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” They didn’t know that at this moment Zacchaeus had become a great person. Is this not the risk of judging others? We can now see the relationship between Zacchaeus and our Lord’s Entry to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus desire for Christ and his humility were the palm branches laid in front of the Lord. They prepared the path for Christ as King of his heart.
One of the Church Fathers teaches us, “Instead of our garments, let us spread our hearts before him. And if we think that today our desire for Christ is complete, let us again take the advice of St. Gregory of Nyssa who says, “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see Him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied. The story of Zacchaeus is not an isolated example. We can also consider the story of Bartimaeus: Mark 10:46-52 Now they came to Jericho. As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called. Then they called the blind man, saying to him, “Be of good cheer. Rise, He is calling you.” And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus. So Jesus answered and said to him, “What do you want Me to do for you?” The blind man said to Him, “Rabboni, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road. Do you see the same pattern? Bartimaeus is blind and also has to overcome the problem of the crowd. His only hope is to cry “have mercy” and when the people told him basically to shut up, he cried even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me”! Again, he strips himself of any pride or concern of what others opinions are and is fixated on Christ! His goal is to get to Jesus, he has completely forgotten about himself. He, also like Zacchaeus possessed that blessed combination of desire and humility. That is why Christ said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself.” (Matt 16:24). Christ Himself today teaches us about humility by His own example when He enters Jerusalem. St. Ephraim the Syrian says, “He began with a manger and finished with a donkey, in Bethlehem with a manger, in Jerusalem with a donkey”. Our Lord Jesus Christ never ceased to be an example of humility for us, whether he was the Teacher, or Performer of Miracles, or Servant, or today as King, He showed us that there is no other path than that of humility. Our Lord has not asked of us one thing that He Himself has not shown by example.
That is why St. Macarius exhorts us saying: God, for your sake humbled Himself, and you will not be humbled for your own sake?! The Lord Himself who is the Way and is God, after He came not on His own behalf but for you so that He might be an example for you of everything good, see, He came in such humility, taking “the form of a slave” [Philippians 2:7], He Who is God, the Son of God, King, the Son of King … But do not despise His divine dignity, as you look at Him, externally humiliated as one like us. For our sakes He so appeared, not for Himself… When they spat in His face and placed a crown of thorns on Him and hit Him, what more humiliation could He have yet undergone?… If God condescends to such insults and sufferings and humiliation, you, who by nature are clay and are mortal, no matter how much you are humiliated, will never do anything similar to what your Master did. God, for your sake, humbled Himself and you will not be humbled for your own sake?! The Lord promises divine rest for the humble when he says: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30). And finally, what does it mean if Christ is my King? Certainly the use of the word King is not by accident. How do we know if we truly have Christ reigning in our lives as King. If Christ is my King then: I live by His laws and commandments. I am first and foremost a citizen of His Kingdom, and no other. I serve Him by serving others in His Kingdom. I believe that He will care for all my needs. I trust in His protection against my enemies. Everything I do, I do for His Glory! May the Lord Jesus Christ, who today triumphantly entered into Jerusalem as King, reign in our hearts and our lives, and to Him is the Glory forever and ever. Amen!
A homily delivered at St. Demiana Church, California, on the Feast of Palm Sunday.