tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Old Testament brings meaning to Palm Sunday

The 20th of March is Palm Sunday in my church, a feast I recall commemorating as early as my childhood years. We would get palm branches to hold during Sunday Mass, but until recently that was the extent of my understanding of this important day in the liturgical calendar. With some study, I have learned a little about the significance of this day and I appreciate this opportunity to share that knowledge.

Palm Sunday, of course, is the beginning of Holy Week – the week that includes the Last Supper of our Lord and His crucifixion. One week after Palm Sunday, we celebrate Easter, commemorating Christ’s great triumph over death in resurrection from the cross. Luke 19:28-38 describes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which we remember on Palm Sunday. Riding on the back of a donkey, He is praised by the crowds: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” The remainder of Luke’s Gospel presents the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

In order to really get some perspective on what is happening, go back to Exodus 12:1-20, where God describes to Moses and Aaron the first Passover. God explains that in order for the chosen people to be saved, a lamb must be slaughtered. In fact, the chosen people must eat the lamb. God says a lamb is to be selected on the 10th day of the month of “Nisan,” which translates roughly to our springtime today. The lamb is to be inspected; four days later, after the lamb has been determined to “be without blemish” (Ex 12:5), it is to be slaughtered in the evening twilight with the whole assembly of Israel present, (Ex 12:6). At Exodus 12:22, Moses instructs people to take a hyssop branch, dip it in the blood of the lamb, and apply the blood to their doorposts; the angel of death passes over the homes so marked. They are literally saved by the blood of the lamb.

Now, fast-forward to the New Testament and it becomes apparent that Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover. The nativity stories of Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas, tell us that Christ is born in a stable at Bethlehem, which is just outside Jerusalem. By the time of Christ, faithful Jews would come to Jerusalem for the annual Passover ritual. Flocks of sheep would be kept near Bethlehem, precisely for the purpose of eating lamb at Passover. Sheep are outdoor animals; the only time they come indoors is to give birth. The stable where Jesus was born was a place for the sheep in the sacrificial flock to give birth.

Thirty years after the birth of Christ, John the Baptist sees Jesus at the Jordan River and exclaims: “Behold the Lamb of God,” (John 1:29).

Palm Sunday is the day the shepherds would march the sheep from Bethlehem into Jerusalem so people could select the one they want for their Passover meal. Jesus rides into town on a donkey on that same day. That is partly why there were crowds of people in the street to greet Him. The Jews would buy a lamb, and over four days inspect it before slaughtering it so they could eat it on Passover. Soon after entering Jerusalem, Jesus is arrested and questioned at length by Pilot, who declares Him innocent. It has been about four days since Jesus entered Jerusalem, and Pilot declares “I find no guilt in him” (John 18:38). The Lamb is declared to be without blemish, as the Passover ritual requires. Then, in the evening twilight, He is crucified -- slaughtered before crowds of people. While Jesus is hanging on the cross, a soldier offers Jesus vinegar to drink by soaking a sponge on a hyssop branch and raising it to His mouth.

Christians are saved by the blood of Christ, as the Israelites were saved by the blood of the lamb. And just as the Israelites were to eat the Lamb, we are to eat of the Body of Christ, the new Lamb (see John 6:52-59).

Clearly, the Passover, the nativity, the resurrection and the Eucharist are all part of the same story. And we are given a hint about that as early as the Book of Genesis. The 22nd chapter of Genesis describes the famous story where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on the top of the mountain. Isaac doesn’t understand what is happening, but Abraham must understand the whole picture very clearly. As the two of them are ascending the mountain -- Isaac with the wood on his back for the offering -- Isaac asks his father: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the holocaust?” (Gen 22:7). Abraham answers: “God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust.”

You know the conclusion of the story: At the top of the mountain, God relieves Abraham of the requirement to kill his son. Instead, they see a ram caught in the thicket and slaughter the wild animal instead. Note that it is a ram, not a lamb. God doesn’t provide the Lamb until the New Testament, and that is what we celebrate on Palm Sunday, riding triumphantly into Jerusalem.

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