Today is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, in which we will have once again represented to us liturgically the saving events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
But what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Christ? The word “Christ” means anointed, and the Messiah is the one who is the anointed liberator of Israel. It looked back to the independent kingdom of Israel and in particular the reign of King David. David had defeated the pagans and captured Jerusalem. His son Solomon had built the first temple in Jerusalem. The kingdom had subsequently been divided between Israel and Judah. Israel had later been conquered by the Assyrians, and Judah by the Babylonians and the temple had been destroyed. The Persians had subsequently allowed the Jews to return from exile in Babylon, and the temple was rebuilt as the Jewish people regrouped under Ezra and Nehemiah. Though they no longer had political independence they looked forward to a future restoration through the anointed liberator, the Messiah. The Persians were replaced by Hellenistic rulers after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Judas Maccabeus successfully revolted against the Antiochus Epiphanes and purified the temple. But the Hasmonean rulers (the successors of the Judas Maccabeus) proved just as worldly and compromised as the regime they replaced, and in due course the Jewish kingdom was conquered by Rome. By the time of Jesus’ ministry Judea was subject to direct Roman rule, while Galilee was under the client kingdom of Herod Antipas. The people consequently looked for an anointed liberator, the Messiah, who would defeat Rome and restore the kingdom of Israel.
When Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was breaking into history in his own words and works, in which the eyes of the blind were being opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped (as the prophet Isaiah had foretold), it inevitably raised the question of whether he was in fact the agent of God’s final deliverance of his people, the Messiah. At the climax of his Galilean ministry after the feeding of the five thousand, the multitude sought to take him and make him king by force, but Jesus withdrew by himself (John 6:14). The world could not be won by the world’s own methods. When Peter acknowledged that Jesus was not simply a prophet like one of the old prophets, but the Messiah, Jesus responded that he was now the rock on which the Church, the faithful remnant of Israel, would be built. But Jesus explained that his messianic destiny of enthronement and rule could only be won through reversal, repudiation, suffering and death.
For those who were looking for a warrior and a conqueror who would re-establish an independent kingdom of Israel by force of arms this was a difficult message to accept. When Jesus came to Jerusalem for the final Passover at which he met his death he was acclaimed as King of Israel by the multitude who came out from the city to meet him with palm branches. Doubtless they saw him as a potential successor to Judas Maccabeus, who would take on and defeat the might of Rome. In riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus said in effect that he was indeed the king of Israel, but not the king that the multitude were expecting.
A few days later he was crucified by the Romans, with the collaboration of the Jewish authorities (who were anxious to maintain good relations with their Roman overlords), as “King of the Jews”. In other words he was one who had placed himself in opposition to the rule of Caesar and was therefore guilty of treason. The powers that be realised that Jesus was not a revolutionary in the conventional sense of one who was leader of a violent uprising (if they had genuinely believed that they would have executed his followers as well), yet they rightly perceived that his messianic claims were a threat to their power.
Jesus subverted the authority of Caesar not by violence but by sacrificing himself as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. There was a long tradition in Judaism of the suffering righteous man. It was a theme of many of the Psalms and was taken up by the Maccabean martyrs, who had died rather than compromise with paganism and so in a sense suffered on behalf of the nation. It was above all the theme of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, who was wounded for our transgressions and chastised for our iniquities.
Jesus drew together the vocation of the Messiah, the agent of God’s final deliverance, with that of the suffering servant of Isaiah who dies as a sacrifice in substitution for the sins of the many. Jesus had taught the path of self sacrifice, of turning the other cheek and going the second mile, of loving enemies and praying for persecutors. In his passion, his non resistance at his trial, and his praying for his persecutors he would himself embody the message that he had taught. He would turn the other cheek, he would go the second mile, and would thereby take evil upon himself and somehow subsume it into good, of power made perfect in weakness.
As St. Paul put it in today’s Epistle, “who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, being obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God hath also exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth and under the earth: and that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11)
Almighty and everlasting God, who didst will that our Saviour should take upon him our flesh and suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility; mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience and also be made partakers of his resurrection.