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Palm Sunday and ascension to the papacy

Yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The official calendar gives the day a very cumbersome title: Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.

Ten days ago the cardinal archbishop of Argentina entered the Vatican to be eventually elected pope. The two occasions invite some reflection.

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The entry into Jerusalem was a triumphal occasion. The buildup for the celebratory event started in Jericho when Jesus, together with other pilgrims, passed by. Seated along the road was the blind man Bartimaeus. When he became aware that among the pilgrims was Jesus, he started shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Jesus finally summoned him and cured his blindness. Immediately, the theme “David” took hold of the growing crowd, which decided to accompany Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.

Nothing like that preceded the entry of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio into the Vatican. He was not among the touted  papabiles  and, in fact, only the reporter John Allen mentioned him as a possible pope. Unnoticed Cardinal Bergoglio entered Rome.

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I had always thought that the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was intentionally a very plebeian event.  It turns out, however, as told by the future Benedict XVI in his book on the Passion of Our Lord, that the event was rich with symbols of royalty.

Jesus arrived at the Mount of Olives from Bethpage and Bethany where the arrival of the Messiah was awaited. He told the two disciples that they would find an untamed colt tied to a fence and were to take it over. If questioned, they were instructed to answer that the Master needed it. They found the colt and did as they were told.

I used to wonder what the justification was for this appropriation. Now I am told by the future Benedict XVI of its royalty implications. It was all a recollection of the right of the king to requisition what he needed for travel, a right recognized in antiquity.

More importantly, Matthew and John cite Zacariah saying: “Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion, shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” Jesus is presented as a king who breaks down the triumphal arcs of war, a king of peace, of simplicity, and of the poor. This was a decisive rejection of zealotry.

This is how Pope Francis has been presenting himself. And even in his life as a prelate in the difficult days of the dictatorship in Argentina, he avoided any semblance of zealotry. He worked as a man of peace.

When finally the disciples brought the colt to Jesus, something unexpected happened: the disciples threw their cloaks on the animal and they proceeded to help Jesus mount it. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, recalls in this how Solomon ascended to the throne of David. The priest Zadoc and the prophet Nathan, helped by others, installed Solomon on the throne.

Likewise, there was symbolic royalty when the disciples threw their cloaks on the animal: it was a gesture of enthronement in the tradition of Davidic royalty.

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The enthusiasm of the disciples infected the crowd who thereafter carpeted the road with their cloaks and branches of trees while shouting the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!”

This enthusiastic crowd of pilgrims was not the same crowd that would later shout “Crucify him, crucify him!” But the enthusiasm of the Palm Sunday crowd was repeated in St. Peter Square when thousands of people from all over the world greeted Pope Francis when it was announced, “We have a Pope who has taken the name Francis.”

After the entry into Jerusalem, what happened? Mark tells us that after the enthusiastic reception by the crowd, Jesus went to the Temple to observe what was happening, and then retired to Bethany. Later he returned to the Temple to cleanse it of those engaged in buying and selling. He also overthrew the tables of the money changers and the places of those selling doves.

What was this all about? Was it a manifestation of zealotry or of political revolution? Mark sees the answer in the words of Our Lord: “Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’? But you have made it a den of thieves.”

After the installation of Pope Francis, what will happen? There is much talk about the cleansing of the Vatican offices. We shall await developments in the Vatican.

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TAGS: Palm Sunday, papacy, Roman Catholic church, Vatican
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