Temptation of the Palms

By Giuseppe Gagliano

I want to take you back five or six weeks, back to the very beginning of Lent. In that first Sunday in Lent, as we do every year, we encountered the story of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. The Devil appeared before the Son of God during his 40-day sojourn of fasting, and held before him three temptations: to turn a stone into bread, to fling himself off the temple to be caught by angels, and to worship the devil in order to rule the nations of the world. Christ rejected all of these temptations. But, if you remember that passage well, it said that the tempter would return at an opportune time.

And, I propose, today is that opportune time. In our liturgy, we re-enacted that moment when Jesus marches into Jerusalem, riding on a colt, and proclaimed as the king by the people. When those going before him shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” this was not some idle proclamation. It was deeply rooted in the Jewish people’s centuries-long yearning for the restoration of the kingship of David. As ancient prophets had foretold, King David’s lineage would return to sit on the throne. And this was all while Israel was held captive under the greatest empire the world had ever known. Rome — with its powerful Caesar miles and miles away — would be toppled and a new kingdom established at Jerusalem.

Here, the tempter returned for an opportune time. I wonder if, seeing the crowds that day, the Lord recalled those words of the Devil, who showed him, in the desert, the kingdoms of the world. This time, there was no need to bow down and worship the tempter: that earthly power was just within reach. The people were with him! He could hear the joy and devotion in their voices. Maybe this was the moment to seize: if he could take the throne now, he wouldn’t have to undergo cruel execution. The throne of David was just a snap of the fingers and a popular insurrection away.

But Christ did not succumb to temptation. He marched into Jerusalem as a king, for sure, but as a ruler of a different kind, and not one that the crowds expected. He knew that the kingdom of his Father was not one that reigned from thrones of gold, but from the wood and iron of the Cross.

It might seem odd to begin our service today with the procession of palms, only to move into the narrative of Christ’s Passion. However, to shift from the palms to the Passion is not that far of a stretch. At first glance, it might seem like a jump from celebration to devastation. After all, the crowds are so gleeful one moment, and so vindictive the next.

In actuality, this shift is one from facing temptation to an overcoming of temptation. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is more a haunting than a happy moment, one when the exaltation of the crowds drowns out its eerie undertones. Just beyond the waving fronds, the tempter watches closely, seeing what the Messiah would do. The Palms represent the temptation to establish an earthly kingdom. Yet the Passion shows the Messiah reigning and ruling from the tree. In that suffering, we see the true unfolding of obedience to the gospel, and the price of the kingdom before its absolute victory.

As we stand on the cusp of this Holy Week, I ask us to turn our attention to who Christ is as a king. He is not the one who rules like the monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers of our own time — and all times. Instead, he rules from the wood and iron of the Cross. This is not the reign that provokes calls of adulation and “Hosanna,” but rather one that inspires the cries of “Christ, have mercy upon us.”

Our king reigns, but not in the way that the world expected. And this week, we are asked to walk the way of the Cross with him. We are to turn from the shouts and cheers of Hosanna — empty though tempting as they are — and to face the reality of sacrifice as we hear the crowds cry, “We have no king but Caesar.” And then — only then — will we be able to walk with the Messiah on the road to his glorious victory over death.

The kingdom of God is established not by war or force, but by sacrifice. And this week, we trek the path of the establishment of that kingdom. Betrayal, suffering, lies, deceit, denials, execution, and death await those who follow in the ways of Christ. But at the same time, victory lies on the other side for those who walk the way of Jesus. This week, let us follow him to the triumph of that kingdom established not by glory, but by sacrifice.

The Rev. Giuseppe Gagliano serves the Anglican Diocese of Quebec’s St. Francis Regional Ministry.

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