JESUS’s entrance into Jerusalem represents a moment of transition. At this point, the content of Matthew’s Gospel becomes “less didactic and more sacramental, less bent on conveying a message and more eager to show the substance of God’s love for the world as it became visible in Jesus’ flesh and blood in the drama of the Passion” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew).
The procession on that first Palm Sunday is a carefully planned and striking piece of political theatre. Entering the holy city on a donkey and her foal, Jesus enacts a vision of kingship at odds with both the Roman Empire and with those who seek to overthrow it by force. He disturbs the political and religious elites, and yet disappoints those who are hoping for a violent revolution.
Jerusalem is thrown into “turmoil” by the arrival of this joyful and peaceable crowd, made up of followers who have been gathering as Jesus travelled up from Jericho. The turmoil is intensified by his first actions on arriving in the city: cleansing the Temple, and allowing the blind and the lame to enter its portals — in a pivotal passage, striking in its absence from the Holy Week lections (Matthew 21.12-17).
As Stanley Hauerwas explains, to call these actions of Jesus “political” is to challenge the dominant understanding of politics in our age: “We normally do not associate questions of truth and worship with politics.” But Jesus’s actions “refuse to let Rome determine what counts as politics. . . Politics for Jesus is about power. But the power that Jesus exercises is that which is life-giving, drawing as it does on the very source of life itself” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).
Christians must avoid either allowing theology to be co-opted by a secular political agenda, or falling into the opposite mistake of imagining the faith to be “apolitical”. The idea that there could be a realm of “politics” for which the Gospel has no implications is utterly alien to scripture and tradition. It is a secularising distortion.
Our second Gospel reading begins with another drama, in which Jesus interprets his coming death, and summons believers into the common life which it makes possible. He invites each disciple to take and eat “my body” and to drink “my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.
Until they behold the reality of the Passion, his disciples will not truly understand Jesus’s consistent teaching about the necessity — and, indeed, the glory — of the Cross. Before Calvary, the disciples argue over who is the greatest (Matthew 18.1-4), and Peter boasts that he will never abandon his Lord (Matthew 26.33). They must encounter the reality of his sacrificial death, of their own desertion and denial, and of the forgiveness and power that flows from his Paschal victory.
In the eucharist, we are brought to the foot of the Cross, to see God’s word of love become visible in his flesh and blood. Herbert McCabe writes that “we begin with a ceremony in a church and find ourselves in the Kingdom; no longer simply talking or thinking about Christ but in his bodily presence” (God Still Matters).
At this time, when most worshippers are unable to receive the sacrament, we must enter into Christ’s self-offering through spiritual communion, and through a deeper contemplation of the echoes of the Passion in our experience. As St Thomas Aquinas explains, in spiritual communion “an ardent desire” to receive Christ sacramentally leads on to him granting us “a loving embrace as though we had already received Him”. And, as our Archbishops have written, Holy Week this year “could be a profound experience of walking the way of the cross and experiencing the isolation that Jesus experienced as everyone fell away and he faced the cross alone”.
St Teresa of Ávila reminds us, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.” While there will be no public liturgies, the Lord’s invitation remains the same: to contemplate the “substance of his love” as it became visible in Christ’s Passion, and to allow him to draw us into that same life and love.