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Triumphal entry?

Epiphany, 6 January, 2010
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Someone has suggested that all English movies are about class anxiety, all French films are ultimately about elegance and all American movies are about the redemptive power of violence — a quote that came back to me when I saw the recent version of Alice in Wonderland which turns Alice into an armour clad monster slaying action hero. With Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter wielding a two handed claymore sword by her side. No I'm not making this up.

Even in James Cameron's visually astonishing Avatar, a re-working of the 'noble savage' myth, in which a peaceful native people, in tune with nature and with a deep spirituality are invaded by rapacious humans seeking a rare mineral — rather unimaginatively called 'unobtanium'. Even here, the imagination of the writers and director cannot stretch to any sort of resistance except for violence.

One of the really great things about the information age is that, online, you often see strange bizarre and funny things you would never encounter under other circumstances. A couple of weeks ago, via a Facebook link from a friend of a friend, I read the weirdest piece of fundamentalist literature I have ever seen. It was a comic from the mid 90s depicting Jesus, basically, as a superhero — complete with staring eyes, tough-guy speech bubbles and muscled torso. After the crucifixion he is shown flying to Mount Olympus where he proceeds to beat up the false and mocking Greek gods. No, I'm not making this up!

I hope that I'm not being too much of smug liberal if I assert that these interpretations miss the point completely. In this story — the story in which we participate over the next week, there is no redemptive violence. You only need to look at Jesus's entry into Jerusalem — perhaps the most conventionally triumphalist episode in the gospels to see this. Jesus is presented as critically aware of the symbolism of what he is doing and he chooses to undercut the triumphal mood of the entry by riding a profoundly unheroic and humble animal — here in Luke a young colt and in Matthew's gospel a donkey and her foal. Despite the palms and the cloaks and the hosannas, he enters Jerusalem like a visiting farmer rather than a victorious general. It is important not to miss the Messianic triumph but equally important to see how Jesus communicates symbolically the sort of Messiah-ship he was claiming.

In Matthew's gospel, particularly, he evokes images of the Messiah as described in the prophecy of Zechariah — one who is humble and who will bring peace — not leading the war chariots but "taking away the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem". This image from Zechariah — written at a time when the Jews were subject to a previous set of foreign rulers, the Seleucid Greeks — seems to be what Jesus has in mind when he makes this very public claim to messianic authority.

And of course, we know where the story is going from here. It's not just that Jesus is here clearly and symbolically renouncing violence — it's that we know he is to become the victim of violence, temporal power and political cynicism. And it is this message that I fear the comic book Christian warriors don't get. Both before and after his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus criticises those who seek power over others — and most particularly those who use religious structures and laws to acquire that domination. And the consequences of power — both temporal and religious — constantly lurk in the background of this triumphal image. It is no accident that the readings from the Hebrew scripture and the epistles we heard today point not to the triumphal entry but to the cross. It is no accident that church tradition has two gospel readings — the palm gospel and the passion gospel for mass on this day. Or indeed that in the original Book of Common Prayer lectionary, the triumphal entry was not read at all today — the gospel reading was the passion story in St John.

One could imagine a stereotypical Hollywood producer being presented with this story and suggesting that a better ending might be for Jesus to lead the Jewish people in a successful rebellion, scouring the Roman invaders and their quislings in the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem. But in this story there is no redemptive violence. It explicitly rejects the idea — in the symbolism of the entry and in the shadow of the cross that looms on the edge of our consciousness. And the cheering people — some of them at least — will soon be the ones shouting 'Crucify him!'

After this great scene, not much of a heroic ending. Except it is, of course, not the end. And I'm not making that up either.


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