First Sunday in Advent
The Gospel. St. Matthew 21. 1.
At that time: When they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethpage, unto the mount of Olives : then sent Jesus two disciples, saying unto them : Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her : loose them and bring them unto me. And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say : The Lord hath need of them ; and straightway he will send them. All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Prophet, saying : Tell ye the daughter of Sion : Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and the set him thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way ; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying : Hosanna to the Son of David ; Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord ; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying : Who is this? And the multitudes said : This is Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them : It is written : My house shall be a house of prayer ; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
I doubt that I’m the only one who has been at least curious about the Gospel lesson for today. After all, this is the first Sunday in Advent; the beginning of that penitential season during which we prepare for the Birth of Our Lord at Christmas. And yet, the people who put together our Lectionary chose for this day a passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel that relates the story of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem which, as we know, came towards the end of Jesus earthly ministry.
So it’s only natural to wonder why a lesson that seems more appropriate for Palm Sunday or at least during Holy Week, is being presented to us at this particular time; the beginning of the Church year. And I think that the answer can be found in the specific verses that I just quoted; “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Prophet, saying : Tell ye the daughter of Sion : Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”, “And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying : Hosanna to the Son of David ; Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord ; Hosanna in the highest.”
The first thing that we need to remember as we explore this notion further, is that the entirety of Our Lord’s life here in this world, from his Conception and Birth through his adolescence and culminating in his three year earthly ministry, was foretold by the Prophets. This is one reason why the Evangelists were at such pains to quote from the Prophets when they related certain events and actions; “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Prophet…“. The overriding purpose was to prove to their primarily Jewish audience that Jesus was indeed the Chosen One; the Messiah, the “Deliverer”, yearned for by most Jews of that time.
Each of the Synoptic authors introduces this same concept in slightly different ways. St. Matthew begins by chronicling Jesus ancestry; what many have somewhat flippantly come to call, “the begats”. In doing so, Matthew answers the prophecies that the Messiah would come from the house and lineage of King David.
On the other hand, St. Mark and St. Luke seem to share a common beginning, both centralized on the role of St. John Baptist. But whereas St. Mark focuses specifically on the prophetical purpose of the Baptist’s life (Ch 1, V 2&3), St. Luke “fleshes out” the story.
Luke tells us of the miraculous conception and birth of the messenger who would go before the people to proclaim the coming of the Lord. His detailed description of the appearance of the angel to Zacharias, and likewise the angels revelation of the destiny of the child about to be conceived, adds weight to the ancient prophecies (“And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord”).
And so the natural conclusion would be that the prophecies of the Old Testament were intended not only to predict the coming of Christ, but likewise to prepare us for his arrival. St. Matthew initiates this process by providing the evidence for Our Lord’s royal lineage; St. Mark follows this up by telling us about that person who went before the promised one, in accordance with Jewish Scripture; and St. Luke gives weight and authority to both. But the message of all three remains the same; “prepare ye the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (Mark 3:3).
So this is the context under which we may try to understand todays Gospel lesson. When we consider the events related in this passage from St. Matthew, we must first remember Our Lord’s Royal lineage, and then apply it accordingly to this verse; “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Prophet, saying : Tell ye the daughter of Sion : Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”.
Many, if not most, of the Jews of that time seemed to have neglected or forgotten this particular quote from the 9th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah (verse 9). Had they recalled it correctly, they would have realized that the Christ was not coming as a military conqueror at all; just the opposite, in fact.
You see, in our world, the ass is seen as a stubborn, obstinate beast of burden. But in the Middle Eastern societies of two thousand years ago, the ass was a noble animal; one that even a person of royal blood would have ridden without shame. A king would mount a horse only in times of war. But when the king rode an ass, it was a sign that he was coming in peace.
And so it was no accident that Our Lord arranged to ride into Jerusalem on the back of an ass. By doing so, he laid claim to his royal birthright, and he likewise declared to the world just what sort of kingdom he had come to establish; the Kingdom of God would be a Kingdom of Peace.
And then, we have the reaction of the crowd to Our Lord’s arrival in Jerusalem; “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way ; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way“. They were greeting Jesus as a King. Perhaps without even realizing it, they were reenacting the victorious entry to Jerusalem of Simon Maccabaeus from some nearly two centuries earlier (I Maccabees 13:51)
Additionally, we find the crowds greeting mirrored in the triumph of Judas Maccabaeus, who had led the effort to rescue Israel from foreign occupation in 175 BC, and had and further cleansed, purified and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated. (2nd Maccabees 10: v 7). “Therefore they bare branches and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place”.
Again, we find Our Lord’s actions taking these events to their prophetical fulfillment; “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them : It is written : My house shall be a house of prayer ; but ye have made it a den of thieves“. And by doing so, Jesus once again emphasizes his royal status and authority.
But now we must again return to the cries of the crowd; “Hosanna to the Son of David ; Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord ; Hosanna in the highest“. To understand this declaration more fully, we may reflect upon it in each of its three parts; “Hosanna to the Son of David“, “Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord“, and “Hosanna in the highest“.
“Hosanna to the Son of David“. It is possible that even by that time in history, the word “hosanna” had devolved to simply mean “hail”; in other words, it was an enthusiastic form of greeting, though one reserved for special occasions. And so in this particular case, the crowd was not simply voicing their welcome to Jesus, but they were also acknowledging his royal lineage as a son of the House of King David.
“Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord“. Here we must remember that these events took place just as the Passover Feast was to begin, and that there were many thousands of people flocking to Jerusalem to join in the celebrations. This greeting, “Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord“, would have been the normal salutation to anyone who had come to join in the Paschal Feast.
But it is in the third section of this cry that we finally find our focus and purpose for this Advent Season; “Hosanna in the highest“. In this context, “hosanna” cannot mean simply “hail”. Rather, the meaning must relate to the true definition of the word; “Hosanna”, “Save now”.
This was the cry of a distressed people to their king, and its origin is found in Psalm 118 (v 25); “Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord: O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity”. However, in this case it is not just a singular call to God, but also a plea for intercession. When the crowd sang out “Hosanna in the highest”, they were not just pleading to God, but they were also imploring the whole heavenly host of angels to join in their petition, “Save now”! “Hosanna in the highest“. This then is why this particular Gospel lesson is so appropriate for us as we begin the Advent Season.
By his triumphant entry to Jerusalem, Our Lord signals to us that our King is coming. By his choice of mounts, he tells us of his royal status and that he is coming as the “Prince of Peace”. By his eviction of the salesmen and the money-changers, he purifies the Temple and shows us that we too must purify ourselves.
And so it is incumbent upon us to emulate that crowd by joyously greeting Our Savior in anticipation of his arrival; further, even in our joyful anticipation, we must always remember the ultimate reason for the coming Incarnation; the Paschal Sacrifice. And finally, we must join with the heavenly host of angels, inviting Jesus to come into our lives with all urgency; calling upon him to “Save now”. During this Advent Season, this must be our pure motivation as we prepare to welcome Our Lord at Christmas. “Hosanna to the Son of David ; Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord ; Hosanna in the highest“.