The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar to them that they probably don’t sense their properly revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death.
In Mark’s Gospel we hear that Jesus and his disciples “drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives.” A bit of trivial geographical detail, we might be tempted to conclude. But we have to remember that pious Jews of Jesus’ time were immersed in the infinitely complex world of the Hebrew Scriptures and stubbornly read everything through the lens provided by those writings.
About five hundred years before Jesus’ time, the prophet Ezekiel had relayed a vision of the “Shekinah” (the glory) of Yahweh leaving the temple, due to its corruption: “The glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house (the temple) and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim . . . rose from the earth in my sight as they went out . . . They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them” (Ezek. 10:18-19). This was one of the most devastating texts in the Old Testament. The temple of the Lord was seen as, in almost a literal sense, the dwelling place of God, the meeting-place of heaven and earth. Thus even to imagine that the glory of the Lord had quit his temple was shocking in the extreme. However, Ezekiel also prophesied that one day the glory of God would return to the temple, and precisely from the same direction in which it had left: “Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory” (Ez. 43:1-2). Furthermore, upon the return of the Lord’s glory, Ezekiel predicted, the corrupt temple would be cleansed, restored, rebuilt.
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