Essay / Literature

Behold Your King: Reflections on a Palm Sunday

Christians remember on Palm Sunday the triumphal entry of Christ to Jerusalem–the King of Glory riding to the ostensible seat of his political and religious power, received as victor and Lord with shouts of Hosannas.

But there is a great deal about the scene that–at least as it hits my imagination–speaks of Christ’s humility: riding a donkey, entering into his betrayal, praised by the same people who would later shout “Crucify him!” A number of churches seem to inscribe the humility of the Triumphal Entry by giving children a special role in its ecclesial celebration.

The Christian imagination, it seems to me, has grasped well the wonderful tension of Christ’s kingship: that it is at once lordly and lowly. The Son of God in his very self-emptying makes himself like his creatures in order to rule them. The echoes of his kingly estate are heard in such figures as Shakespeare’s Henry V and Tolkien’s Strider/Aragorn.

In the seventeenth century Westminster Catechism, questions of Christ’s kingly office are followed by the exposition of his estate of humiliation and exaltation:

The estate of Christ’s humiliation was that low condition, wherein he for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant, in his conception and birth, life, death, and after his death, until his resurrection.

The estate of Christ’s exaltation comprehends his resurrection, ascension, sitting at the right hand of the Father, and his coming again to judge the world.

The Gospel of John surprised and puzzled my students recently in a manner that I found illuminating. In the narrative John records, Christ refers to the hour of his glorification as the occasion of his passion. Even more explicitly, he refers to his own exaltation in his crucifixion.

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:32)

My students wanted to resist John’s own explication of Christ’s words, more inclined to think that Christ is lifted up in his resurrection or ascension. But the reader doesn’t have that option. Instead she is invited to the counterintuitive (even for the Christian) identification of exaltation and crucifixion.

Holy Week begins with cries of adoration to the victorious Lord whose entrance into Jerusalem was his entrance into suffering and death, the climax of his low condition. And this true king ushers in his kingdom in this way, on the back of a donkey. He inaugurates and establishes his dominion by taking upon himself the form of a servant. And he is exalted on high because he was lifted up on the cross.

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