In today's homily for Palm Sunday, Fr. Irineos urges us to intensify our preparation as we journey with our Savior to the Cross. (Rough transcript below)
Today the King of Glory comes to the Gates of Jerusalem and enters in, seated on the foal of a donkey. He comes not with chariots, blaring trumpets or clashing cymbals, but meekly seated on the lowliest of beasts. Today we too having come to the end of the 40 days of Lent, enter into Holy Week. We enter into holy week, not with pride or celebration, but with somber reflection, knowing what is to come. Christ’s disciples had been foretold of his suffering in the Gospel passage we read last week, but they did not know. They did not understand.
Christ’s earthly ministry is nearing an end. He has performed miracles: fed the hungry, healed the sick, raised the dead during the three years since him Baptism in the Jordan. He has one great and awesome sacrifice left. Our Lenten struggle, though not nearly so public as Christ’s, has let us share in his ministry, through the Lenten services, increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But we too, have work left to do, as we await his glorious Resurrection on Holy Pascha. Today we meet him at the gates of Jerusalem and we prepare to journey toward the Cross with Him.
Christ’s entry into Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Zecheriah, who in the 9th chapter writes:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
In fulfilling the prophecy, we see revealed Christ’s plan of salvation for all mankind. The King of the Jews, as he would be mockingly called on the Cross, enters into Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, on a young donkey. A donkey, in Jewish times, belonged to the ranks of animals considered ritually unclean. Yet here was Christ seated on this unclean animal. By this act, not only does Christ fulfill the prophecy of Zecheriah, but he also signifies that the Levitical laws, the law of Moses, has been fulfilled as well. No longer does mankind need to depend upon strict adherence to these manmade laws in hope of salvation. Christ has fulfilled the law, as we read in Matthew 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
Christ’s plan is not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles as well, As Zachariah likewise prophesied, “he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea” Christ comes both to those who knew the law and those who knew nothing of the law of Moses. The law, so central to the Jewish conception of salvation, is completed, fulfilled in the words of Christ, and replaced with two simple commandments – love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
We also see Christ’s model for humanity. He humbles himself to ride on this lowly donkey. Though he is fulfilling scripture, he does not explain this to his disciples. He doesn’t sit them down and say, “OK, now I will enter Jerusalem as King.” Christ had no need to seek earthly glory; his kingdom was not of this world. Remember, in the Gospel reading, the Evangelist John tells us “These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him.” Blessed Theophylact writes that it was best that the disciples not know these things, lest they lose faith when they see Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross.
Let’s think about that first part for a minute – that Christ did not need earthly glory. How easy is it for us, in our fallen state to get angry, disappointed, frustrated, when we think our efforts are not being recognized. If we feel that we deserve more than we are getting, doesn’t that make us feel like we have been wronged? Sometimes it makes us just want to quit what we’re doing. We think if they don’t appreciate me, they don’t deserve to have me! Brothers and sisters, who was ever denied more than Christ himself? He worked miracles, he brought salvation to mankind, and his earthly reward was to be scourged and hung on the Cross! And he did this not for his Glory, but for our salvation! He could have quit! Remember on the Cross, they mocked him, saying, "He saved others; He cannot save Himself. 32"Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!" Wouldn’t it have felt great to show them! To bring himself off the Cross and say – “What do you think now” “I told you so!” But had he done that, his work would have gone unfinished. So he persevered to the very end. He did not need man’s adoration, for his kingdom was awaiting him in Heaven.
The strength to turn away from seeking praise – to persevere even when it seems that nobody is recognizing what you are doing – is so contrary to human nature that it seems almost hopeless to ask us to try. Praise feels good. Pats on the back make us work even harder. How can we possibly hope to emulate Christ in that manner? In many ways, the Church gives us our Lenten preparation and the Lenten disciplines for this very reason. In fasting, we deny ourselves of pleasures of the stomach. Not because we don’t deserve to enjoy our food, but because the discipline of denying your own wants is a first step towards focusing not on our temporary, superficial human rewards, but on the heavenly reward. We say the prayer of St. Ephraim, with bows and prostrations. We pray for Christ to take away ambition and to give us instead humble mindedness and patience. And we don’t just say the words, we prostrate ourselves and place our heads on the ground in submission to the will of God. There is a reason that prayer is prescribed during Lent. It moves us again from the earthly, the things that will turn to dust toward the heavenly which is everlasting. The Church has put us on this journey during Lent so we can arrive with Christ at the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, ready to accompany him to the Cross and await his glorious resurrection!
Are we ready? Of course not. We’ve stumbled, fallen and failed during Lent. We are human; that’s what we do. But we’ve picked ourselves back up. And now the Church lays before us Holy Week to prepare with intensity for the coming Resurrection. It is said that an Orthodox Christian may spend as many as 30 hours in church during Holy Week. Well, we don’t have 30 hours worth of services here, but we do have more this week than any other time during the year. But thanks to God, and through labors of both those who serve and those who worship, we will have something everyday besides Tuesday, and multiple services on Great and Holy Friday and Saturday leading up to the Paschal liturgy! We may not make 30 hours, but we can come before God with even greater intensity as we prepare for Pascha.
And we’ll struggle to the Cross with Jesus Christ, with humility, patience and love. And though the Apostles did not understand at the time the fulfillment of scripture that they were observing or the meaning of the words Christ had spoken as to what was to come, their eyes were opened by the Resurrection. And we know, by Divine Revelation, what will happen. So let us use this Holy Week of preparation to humble ourselves even more before God and among our family, neighbors and co-workers, so that when we join together for Pascha, we do so in the image of our humble King, seated on the donkey as the crowds lay the palms before him, ready to complete the journey we started 40 days ago with him. Let our self-denial be exceeded only by our joy when in a week, we hear of Christ’s glorious resurrect and proclaim that he is risen. But today, the King of Glory enters in. Let us join him.