On Palm Sunday we celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, to the waving of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna! Save us, Lord!” Then, five days later we commemorate the Tragic Exit of Jesus from Jerusalem for his death by execution in a desolate place outside the City, on a hill known as “The Skull” (in Hebrew, Golgotha; in Greek, Calvary). 

In between his Triumphal Entry and his Tragic Exit, Jesus had quite an adventure in the City. He and his small band of followers mingled with the crowds of pilgrims who were visiting for the Jewish Passover celebration. He attended the Temple to worship and ended up having a public confrontation with some opportunistic “money-changers” who had set up shop in the holy place. He did some spiritual teaching to gathered groups in the Temple courtyard, which led to arguments with religious leaders who felt they were the only ones authorized to teach. As the week went on, there was building excitement about some of his radical new teachings, but also increasing resistance and open opposition from the religious and political leadership. 

By Thursday, the wheels had been set in motion for Jesus’ Tragic Exit from Jerusalem. Fully aware of the impending disaster, he met with his disciples and shared some of his most reassuring teachings about God’s future plans for him and for them (John 14-16). Then he had his Last Meal with them, promising that he would always be with them when they gathered in his name. After the meal, one of his closest followers turned him in to the authorities. He was arrested, interrogated, beaten and mocked. On Friday afternoon, he was led out of the City, dragging the cross on which he would be executed, by a route which is now known as the Road of Sorrow (Via Dolorosa). As he struggled along, crowds gathered beside the route. Spontaneously, shouts started, mocking him, angrily denouncing him and his teachings, finally calling out agreement that he should be killed: “Crucify him!” 

Quite possibly, among these crowds there were people who only a few days earlier had laid down palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” In fact, the procession may have exited the City through the same gate by which the earlier, more festive parade had entered the City. Triumphal Entry to Tragic Exit in a few short days. How fickle we humans are!  

According to Matthew’s Gospel, a curious thing happened at the moment of Jesus’ death on the hill outside the City:

Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (Matthew 27:50-52)

The dramatic curtain that separated worshipers from the Holy of Holies, the place of God’s very presence; torn “from top to bottom,” that is, by God rather than by humans; tombs splitting open, freeing long-dead people to live again; resurrection three days before Easter Sunday. What is all this confusion about?  

It’s about the fact that Jesus’ Triumphal Entry was not temporary, as it would appear, but marked a permanent, stubborn, ultimate truth. The Tragic Exit looked final, but it wasn’t. At the very moment of his agonizing death, when his rejection seemed to be the last word, Jesus was actually ripping down the barrier between dying humans and their Life-giving Creator God. That’s why the tombs were breaking open and giving birth to former corpses, now dancing with Eternal Life.

– – Pastor George Van Alstine