When Jesus and his disciples had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, `The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!"
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Jesus rides into Jerusalem as the crowds go wild. They spread their cloaks and branches before him as they shout songs of praise. He fulfills the word of the prophet Zechariah (9:9-10), by becoming the king who comes humbly, mounted on a donkey. And what do the people shout?
"Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven! (Matthew 21:9, NRSV)
What a wonderful and familiar refrain. We say and sing these very words every time we gather around the Holy Table for Communion. We too welcome Jesus with these shouts of praise as he comes to meet us in the bread and wine.
But where do these words come from? They are drawn from the 118th Psalm. Beginning at verse 25:
“25 Hosanna, LORD, hosanna! *
Lord, send us now success.
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 God is the LORD; he has shined upon us; *
Form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar” (Psalm 118:25-27, BCP, 762)
Jesus both fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah, and re-enacts the prophecy of Psalm 118. The people greet their new King with a procession of branches to the Temple of Jerusalem. They are, in essence, crowning Jesus as King of Israel. By living into Psalm 118, the people acknowledge that Jesus is the true successor to David, entering Jerusalem to reclaim the throne.
This is a central moment in Jesus’ life. He enters Jerusalem to prepare for his final Passover. He completes his journey toward the cross, where he himself will become our Passover Lamb. But before his great tribulation and suffering, by God’s grace, the people of Israel declare who he truly is. He is the King of Israel, and through Israel, the King of Kings and Lord of the whole Earth.
The crowds praise Jesus using the words of the Hebrew Scriptures. God reveals this truth about Jesus to the crowds using Israel’s Bible. Remember that the Psalms are Israel’s Prayer Book. God gives them to the Chosen People to use in its worship.
Jesus is the perfect Israelite, the Son of David who lives, knows, and prays these Psalms. And in his moment of greatest joy and elation, he and the crowds of Jerusalem praise God with the words of Psalm 118.
But then, only about five days later, Jesus reaches the lowest moment of his life. Jesus sinks to the greatest depths of pain and despair that any human being has ever faced. Crucifixion is a terrible and tortuous fate, but that isn’t what makes this the Cross the low point of human history. The Cross is so low because the weight of the world’s sin, all the powers of violence and death that torment God’s Creation come crashing down onto the Body of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ -- True God and True Human, the New Adam, the Greater Moses, the Son of David, the Perfect Embodiment of Israel, in all its particularity, and the Perfect Embodiment of Universal Humankind -- This Jesus is murdered and hung on a tree. The Giver of Life meets Death.
And in this hour of sorrow, as Jesus hangs on the Cross, scourged, mocked, abandoned, and dying, what does Jesus say?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
This is a troubling verse for many of us. How can God abandon the Son of God? Is such a thing even possible?
But again, Jesus is the perfect, quintessential Israelite. In his moment of deepest agony, suffering, and persecution, he does not cynically reject God. He prays the Psalms. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line of Psalm 22. Even when Jesus questions God, he does it with God’s own Psalter. Jesus the Word of God prays Israel’s Scriptures, the word of God.
Jesus does not just pray the Psalm. He becomes Psalm 22. He is the truly innocent victim, “scorned by all and despised by the people” (Ps 22:6, BCP, 610). “They divide [his] garments among them; they cast lots for [his] clothing” (Ps 22:17, BCP, 611).
Moreover, Psalm 22 isn’t simply a complaint about righteous suffering, but also a prayer of hope. Psalm 22 asserts that God will be faithful and will save the one who suffers. God “does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither does [God] hide [God’s] face from them; but when they cry to [God], [God] hears them” (Ps 22:23, BCP, 612).
Jesus’ prayer on the cross is not a rejection of God. Rather, it is a declaration that no matter how bad it looks, God has not given up on him or on any of us. Even from the Cross, Jesus knows he will rise again. He knows that God will save him. Psalm 22:30 says “They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that [God] has done”.
Even from the Cross, Jesus is preaching. Even when we feel like God has completely abandoned us, when we face death itself, God remains. He points back to Israel’s Scriptures and says, “that God is still faithful. Do not lose hope.”
So we have before us two instances when Jesus’ life was shaped by the Psalms. He celebrates his triumphant entry into Jerusalem with the joyful words of Psalm 118. Jesus laments and also declares the saving power of God in spite of his suffering with the words of Psalm 22. The Psalms are our foundational prayers because they are Jesus’ foundational prayers and Israel's foundational prayers. As Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “the Psalms are the words of Jesus, the Word who speaks in all scripture” (“Augustine and the Psalms,” p. 19).
Jesus was prepared for his Passion by years of praying and reading the Scriptures. In his time of need he knew how God had acted in the world before. He did not back away from the cup of suffering when he prayed in Gethsemane. Jesus could have escaped. But instead he prayed for God’s will to be done in him as it had been done in David and all his other ancestors. He knew the stories of Israel’s sufferings and God’s salvation, and he prayed them in the Psalms themselves.
This is the reason we continue to pray the Psalms in all Christian worship. There is almost always a Psalm to pray at the Sunday Eucharist. And in the Daily Office, the Church prays several psalms every day, morning, noon, evening, and night. In regular prayer practices that include the Psalms, like the Daily Office, we participate with Christ in his prayers. We share in the same Holy Spirit that inspires the Son to speak to the Father.
When we encounter the changes and chances of life, the ups and downs, the joys and despairs, we are rooted in the same profound prayers of Christ. When life is overflowing with blessings, we don’t simply pat ourselves on the back. We pray, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever” (Ps 136:1, BCP, 789). When the hardships of life overwhelm us and we feel that we cannot go on, we don’t give up hope. We pray, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure” (Ps 40:1-2, BCP, 640).
This Holy Week, we will commemorate our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection. We’ll experience the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. As we embark on this journey, commit yourselves to following Christ’s earthly example, to following the guidance of the Holy and Life-Giving Spirit. Pray the Psalms. Amen.
Williams, Rowan. “Augustine and the Psalms.” Interpretation 58, no. 1 (Jan. 2004): 17-27. http://people.bu.edu/joeld/augustine-psalms.pdf.
Note: If you want to start praying the psalms regularly, consider starting with the daily psalms featured in the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. You can find today's psalms and other prayers at http://prayer.forwardmovement.org/.
Image Credit: The Crucifixion by Leon Bonnat