1999 04 – PALM SUNDAY (Prison Writings)

1999 04 – PALM SUNDAY (Prison Writings)

Cycle A

Mt 26, 14-27

(Frank Cordaro – Charles Co. Jail- January 21, 1999)


Palm Sunday brings to my mind two experiences. The first is the yearly efforts we made in the parishes to pull off a Palm Sunday procession. They were always less than enthusiastically embraced by the congregations. I must admit my own responsibility in these tepid efforts. Never the great liturgist, I often waited until the last minute to set up the palms in the lobby of the Church and decide the format and route for the procession. My primary consideration being, what is the easiest and less disruptive way to fulfill the processional obligation. Each year this experience left me less than satisfied with our efforts.

The second experience took place in the 1980’s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The country was heading into a recession. Unemployment was on the rise and we were in the midst of the rural crisis. It was in January and President Reagan was coming to Des Moines. People of differing social justice interests were looking for a place to host a rally in downtown Des Moines to precede a march to the State Capital. Bishop Dingman offered St. Ambrose Cathedral as a place to have the rally.

I’ll never forget the sight of St. Ambrose Cathedral filled to capacity with hundreds of people representing the concerns of working people, family farmers, low income and homeless people and peace and justice organizations from all over the state. Many of these folks rarely if ever darkened the door of a church, let alone a Catholic Cathedral. Bishop Dingman welcomed them all into the Cathedral. After the speeches the whole assembly marched to the State Capital Building with Bishop Dingman in the lead with other leaders. I was never so proud of being a Catholic in Des Moines as I was that day.  Truth is, of the two experiences, the rally at the Cathedral and March to the State Capital was more like the original Palm Sunday procession than anything I’ve ever staged at a Palm Sunday liturgy.


Passover and Jerusalem in Jesus’ Time:

As we enter into these high holy days of Holy Week it is important to remember that the major events we celebrate during this time, except for the Last Supper, took place in the public arena, in the midst of a very dangerous politically charged environment.  Palestine was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. The Romans were a cruel and hated occupier. They levied heavy taxes on the population. They did not hesitate to inflict violent reprisals on anyone who showed the least amount of resistance to their absolute rule. Crucifixions were a common site in Jesus’ life time.

The city of Jerusalem always posed a formidable challenge to any would be occupier.  The Jews were a fiercely independent people with their singular God, temple and temple cult, which they jealously protected and keep pure of any foreign interference. They had a long and rich history of resistance to foreign powers who tried to control them or occupy their territory, beginning with the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans.  The Romans understood this and tried to accommodate the peculiar concerns of the Jewish situation, all the while keeping a strict control of the region and especially the city of Jerusalem. Of course, even the Romans failed at their efforts to pacify the Jewish people and had to resort to their version of the “Final Solution” by putting down the Jewish Rebellion of 68 A.D. by completely destroying the city of Jerusalem and its temple.

The celebration of the Feast of Passover posed a particular concern for the Romans. The Passover Feast was like the birthday of the Jewish Nation, much like our 4th of July. Its historical roots go back to God’s liberating the Jews from Egyptian slavery. In the First Century the Feast took on an added level of meaning. Every year during Roman occupation the Feast of Passover gave the Jewish people an opportunity to express their desire for freedom from Roman oppression.  Jewish Revolutionaries often used the occasion of the Passover celebration in Jerusalem to invite Jewish resistance against the Romans. The Romans anticipated this and fortified the city during Passover with extra soldiers to put down any signs of resistance or rebellion.  During the first century there were three major Jewish uprisings. They all started the same way. Some would be prophet from Galilee would come to Jerusalem during the Feast of Passover and try to start a rebellion. Each one was mercilessly put down by the Romans. During one of the uprisings, the Romans slaughtered 3,000 worshipers in the Temple precincts.



It is in this historical political context that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem must be viewed. The near certainty that a major street demonstration in which Jesus was the center of attraction took place in Jerusalem during the Passover feast is confirmed by the fact that the event is recorded in all four Gospels. Each of the Gospel accounts places the event at the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life during the celebrations leading to the Passover feast.  Common to all four accounts are that the crowds spread their cloaks on the road ahead of Jesus and waved palm branches as he passed by, all the while acclaiming him either the Messiah out right (Matthew, Luke and John) or the prophet of the Messiah (Mark) and that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a colt.  We also know that any public demonstration of a large crowd in the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming anyone the Jewish Messiah or the prophet of this Messiah would be seen by the Roman and Jewish authorities as a display of defiance and rebellion. It was for just such demonstrations that extra Roman soldiers were stationed in Jerusalem during the Passover feast.

When the Gospel writers recounted this event in their Gospel stories, they knew full well the political significance of this public witness. They wrote with a clear memory of the recent Jewish history of Passover rebellions and uprisings and of the brutal Roman reprisals and of Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction.  Matthew’s account says that when Jesus “entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken.” (Matt. 21: 10) And in Luke’s account, the Pharisees in the crowd were so disturbed by the mass demonstration and of the crowds acclamation of Jesus’ Messiahship that they say to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” (Luke 19:39)

It’s not clear who, if anyone, was in control of the crowds. In Luke’s version, Jesus is led into Jerusalem by his disciples. In John’s version, two separate groups meet, one came with Jesus and was with him when he raised Lazarus from the dead and the other group was already in Jerusalem awaiting his arrival. Whichever way it was started, once it began, there was no controlling the crowds.  Crowds by their nature are undisciplined and unruly. This was not a planned or organized effort like ones that I have been involved with. There was no non-violent training given to participants. It’s doubtful if there were any designated “peace keepers” assigned to the demonstration route. Most likely, Jesus’ closest disciples acted at his personal body guard.  This crowd was also fickle, the Gospels are clear about this. For many of the same people who were acclaiming Jesus’ Messiahship during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem will also be crying out for his crucifixion on Good Friday.  The one thing Jesus did have control over in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was the way in which he presented himself to the people. In all four accounts, it is Jesus who puts himself upon the back of a colt.

(Behold, your King shall come to you: a just savior is he, meek and riding on an ass, and a colt, the fold of an ass. Zechariah 9:9)

He rides the humble beast of burden as a direct reference to the book of Zechariah 9:9. In this verse, Zechariah foretells of the coming of the Messiah into Jerusalem riding a colt. According to Zechariah, the Messiah will come, not as a conquering warrior, but in lowliness and peace. This Messiah will not be like the last Kings of Judah who rode in chariots and on horses relying on the strength of their armies and weapons of war. Instead, Zechariah writes in 9:10, “He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.”  Jesus makes clear again for those who are prepared to see what he’s been demonstrating through the Gospel, that he was indeed the Messiah that the Jewish people were anticipating, yet he wasn’t the Messiah they expected.


The 3rd Mark of the Resistance Church

For the last ten years, I’ve been giving a talk entitled, “Following the Non-violent Jesus, a call for a Resistance Church.” In it, I’ve identified four distinct marks, ways to live as Jesus did that sets apart the Resistance Church. Each mark is rooted in how Jesus lived out his life and ministry as told in the four Gospels.  The 3rd mark of this Resistance Church is direct non-violent symbolic actions against unjust social-political-economic structures and institutions. I tell people that this is the flashy, “in your face” activity that will get your name in the paper, put your face on T.V. and land you in jail

The two key events in Jesus’ life that I use to back up my claim for the need to do direct non-violent civil disobedience are the accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his assault on the Temple. Both are closely connected in the Synoptic Gospels with the assault on the Temple following right after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. John places the temple assault early in his gospel story in the 2nd chapter. Both events are very likely to be historical, since they are recorded in all four Gospels. They are the two most outIawed activities that Jesus did. More than anything else that is recorded in the Gospels, these two activities pushed the authorities to arrest him, put him on trial and find him guilty of a capital offense.  When people ask me why I believe it’s necessary to be a law breaker in my efforts to confront and change unjust social structures and institutions, my short answer is “That’s how Jesus did it”



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