An alternative arrival: learning from Palm Sunday at Advent

(Photo: Unsplash/Pro Church Media)

Two thousand years ago a scandalously pregnant teenager tramped into the bustling city of Bethlehem with her faithful yet frazzled fiancé.

It was an unassuming journey but one which fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, then nestled its way into the New Testament and now continues to be re-told even two millennia later in homes, schools, and churches as a central component of the biography of the most momentous man ever to live.

We are now in that coveted corner of our calendars where this re-telling reaches its climax: Advent.

Advent: a season of waiting and preparing. Anticipating Jesus's second coming and eliciting meditation on his first.
Nativity is the dominant narrative at this time of year.

Jesus's first arrival. Hopeful. Heart-warming. Entirely topsy-turvy. Oozing with an insurgent expectancy that fuels our eager anticipation of Jesus's next arrival.

Any other story becomes suddenly superfluous. Any other 'arrival' tale is a rival tale, and an ugly one too – swept aside so as not to obscure the transcendent beauty of a suspected adulteress giving birth in a grimy shack surrounded by sheep and their shepherds.

Yet for all the nativity's yuletide dominance, the quirks of the Anglican Second Service lectionary nudged a different arrival story onto centre stage last Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent: Jesus's Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. (Matthew 21:1-13.)

Maybe this alternative arrival can teach us something this Advent?

The Other Arrival

The scene is set about thirty-three years later. That very same "momentous man" who was then hidden inside the pregnant woman's womb is now a grown man from Nazareth at the height of his public ministry and is just about to complete his own tiresome trek: into Jerusalem.

It was an arrival that was just as humble (colts and donkeys are hardly bourgeois); an arrival just as under-estimated; and an arrival just as explosive.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the city was packed; heaving in fact. Think 'Pope touring Rome', except swap out the Popemobile for a Citroën Saxo. (Apologies to any Citroën Saxo owners.)

Ask the crowd what Jesus was about. Nobody was quite sure. But some said he was the Messiah, come to vanquish Israel of its foes and erect a flourishing Jewish Kingdom to last a thousand generations – so they were out to lend some support.

The streets pounded with expectation.

The city is in uproar. Palm branches are flying. Cloaks are littered everywhere.

"Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Unlike Bethlehem, which hardly knew what had hit it, Jerusalem was ready. The long-awaited liberation was thundering into life.

Their Messiah was here and he was reaching right into the rotten core of the ruling Roman Empire, ripping out its power and ridding it from the land.

Israel would be free and flowing again with milk and honey.

Except that Jesus did not do this. Jesus was not that kind of Messiah. He had other plans.

Jesus will not bow to the roars of the revolutionary crowd.

The Other Arrival Continues...

When you enter your region's capital to start an uprising, riding on a donkey and backed by thousands of restless others (as I'm sure one day you will), I expect you will lunge straight at the heart of the political centre; revolting from the roots outward.

You probably won't go first to the big temple. I wouldn't. (NB: that's why we're not Jesus.)

With the crowd's adulation and exhortation ringing in his ears, Jesus listens only to God. He sweeps not into the political core but the religious heart of the Jewish nation – and he wreaks havoc. (In no other instance has a cleansing required so much cleaning afterwards.)

Sure, Jesus was leading a revolution; but his target was not Rome.

If you read Jesus's rhetoric up to this point, then this should be no surprise to you. Jesus is consistently confrontational and consistently cruciform (i.e. cross-shaped, i.e. Jesus wins, but through suffering).

Repeatedly Jesus tells the religious crowds and the religious authorities, "Forget the God of your rules and revolts; return instead to the God who made you in love and saves you by grace and desires your praise and your presence and exhorts you to justice and mercy." You cannot miss it.

It is not his fault that nobody listens.

So Jesus upped the ante.

Entering Jerusalem and cleansing the temple, Jesus embodied his message that, "I am King – though not as you suppose. Now love God, love others, and follow me in humble obedience marked by mercy."

Okay, but what about Advent?

In one explosive episode we encounter two groups who have got embarrassingly wrong ideas.

First the crowd, trying to manipulate the Messiah for their own socio-religious-political agenda. Second, the religious authorities, trying to manipulate prayer, people, and piety for their own socio-religious-political agenda.

Jesus's arrival into Jerusalem was nothing but a damp squib to them – dangerously disappointing and an inconvenient mess. That Jesus was "God-with-us" seemed some sort of sick joke.

And what about for us as we commemorate the arrival of Jesus this Advent?

Is it possible that we have so sentimentalised Jesus's first coming and so sanitised his second, that we fail to learn a lesson from any arrival of Jesus that took place in between?

We cannot bind, twist, or contort the baby born at Christmas to suit our own ideas or preferences. Nor can we peddle the true Gospel of Christ for cheap kicks, flaky followers, and publicity stunts.

Jesus's job – to reconcile the world to God – transcends political turmoil, transforms religious practice, and topples injustice at every level. It can be very easy to forget this amidst the forthcoming flurry of fluffy Christmas festivities.
Advent is obviously worth celebrating.

We do very well to proclaim that "Christ is born!" and we are very right to sing "O Come O Come Emmanuel".

But Christ is a mystery we dare not profane, and "God-with-us" (Emmanuel) is not always a comfortable concept.
Our Messiah cannot be tamed.

Christ has come, and Christ will come again. Neither of these arrivals were or will be in ways we could even begin to imagine.

Perhaps Jesus's arrival on Palm Sunday can help us to remember that this Advent.

Archie Catchpole is a student at London School of Theology.