A LITURGICAL EXPLANATION BY THE VERY REV. ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN
From the liturgical point of view, the Saturday of Lazarus is the pre-feast of Palm Sunday - the Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem. Both feasts have a common theme: triumph and victory. Saturday reveals the Enemy, which is Death. Palm Sunday announces the meaning of victory as the triumph of the Kingdom of God, as the acceptance by the world of its only King, Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus, His only visible triumph was the solemn entrance into the Holy City. Up to that day, He consistently rejected all attempts to glorify Him. But six days before the Passover, He not only accepted to be glorified, He Himself provoked and arranged this glorification by doing what the prophet Zacharias announced: "behold, Thy King cometh unto thee... lowly and riding upon an ass…. "(Zac. 9:9). He made it clear that He wanted to be acclaimed and acknowledged as the Messiah, the King and the Redeemer of Israel. The Gospel narratives stress all these Messianic features: the palms, the cry from the crowd of “Hosannah,” the acclamation of Jesus as the Son of David and the King of Israel. The meaning is clear: The history of Israel is now coming to its end, for the purpose of that history was to announce and to prepare the Kingdom of God, the advent of the Messiah. And now it is fulfilled. For the King enters His Holy City and in Him all the prophecies, all the expectations find their fulfilment. He inaugurates His Kingdom. The Liturgy of Palm Sunday commemorates this event. With palm branches in our hands, we identify ourselves with the people of Jerusalem. Together with them we greet the lowly King, singing Hosannah to Him. But what is the meaning of this today for us?
CITIZENSHIP IN THE KINGDOM
First, it is our confession of Christ as our King and Lord. We forget so often that the Kingdom of God has already been inaugurated and that on the day of our baptism we were made citizens of it and promised to put our loyalty to it above all other loyalties. We must remember that for a few hours Christ was indeed King on earth in this world of ours, for a few hours only and in one city. But as in Lazarus we have recognised the image of each man, in this one city we acknowledge the mystical centre of the world and indeed of the whole of creation. For such is the biblical meaning of Jerusalem, the focal point of the whole history of salvation and redemption, the holy city of God's advent. Therefore, the Kingdom inaugurated in Jerusalem is a universal Kingdom, embracing in its perspective all men and the totality of creation. For just a few hours. Yet these hours were decisive: The ultimate hour of Jesus, the hour of fulfilment by God, the fulfilment of all His promises, of all His decisions. It came at the end of the entire process of preparation revealed in the Bible. It was the end of all that God did for men. And thus at the most solemn moment of our liturgical celebration, when we receive from the priest a palm branch, we renew our oath to our King and confess His Kingdom as the ultimate meaning and content of our life. We confess that everything in our life and in the world belongs to Christ and that nothing can be taken away from its sole real Owner, for there is no area of life in which He is not to rule, to save, and to redeem. We proclaim the universal and total responsibility of the Church for human history and uphold her universal mission.
THE WAY OF THE CROSS
We, know however, that the King whom the Jews acclaimed then, and whom we acclaim today, is on His way to Golgotha, to the Cross and to the grave. We know that this short triumph is but the prologue of His sacrifice. The branches in our hands signify, therefore, our readiness and willingness to follow Him on this sacrificial way and our acceptance of sacrifice and self-denial as the only royal way to the Kingdom. And finally these branches, this celebration, proclaim our faith in the final victory of Christ.
His Kingdom is yet hidden and the world ignores it. It lives as if the decisive event had not taken place, as if God had not died on the Cross and Man in Him was not risen from the dead. But we, Orthodox Christians, believe in the coming of the Kingdom in which God will be all in all and Christ the only King. In our liturgical celebrations we remember events of the past. But the whole meaning and power of Liturgy is that it transforms remembrance into reality.
Gospel Reading: John 12:1-18
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”
The Plot to Kill Lazarus
Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus.
The Triumphal Entry
The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:
“Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The King of Israel!”
Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written:
“Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, Sitting on a donkey’s colt.”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him. Therefore the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign.