Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the day commemorating Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem before the start of Passover. He would spend the next four days teaching in the temple and being quizzed by the Scribes and Pharisees.
Exodus 12 describes the process that sacrificial lambs must go through before they can be slaughtered at Passover. For four days, they must be set aside. Traditionally, this period has been used to search the lamb for defects, which is exactly what the Scribes and Pharisees were doing by quizzing Jesus. Unknowingly, they were fulfilling the Law of Moses exactly as prescribed 1,300 years earlier.
In the Catholic Church, the Palm Sunday service is unique in that it typically consists of an interactive reading of Jesus’s Passion, that is, the main events from His entry into Jerusalem through His death on the cross. (See my prior post on Good Friday.)
At one point, the readings for that service usually reference Psalm 22:18 “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” King David likely wrote this psalm around 1,000 years before Jesus’s death, and it’s included in the service to show that Jesus was explicitly fulfilling a 1,000 year old prophecy. All four Gospels record this. From John 19:23-24:
When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
“Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said, “They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” So this is what the soldiers did.
But, as I learned recently, there’s more to it than that. And in all my years of attending church on Palm Sunday, I haven’t yet heard any church adequately call attention to it.
On the night of Jesus’s trial (Thursday night, before Good Friday), the high priest (named Caiaphas, who was presiding over the trial) put Jesus under oath and said:
“I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.” Matthew 26:63-65
The robe he tore was a special robe, designed by God when He established Moses’s brother (Aaron) as the head of the priesthood in Exodus 28:31-32: “Make the robe that is worn with the ephod from a single piece of blue cloth, with an opening for Aaron’s head in the middle of it. Reinforce the opening with a woven collar so it will not tear.“
If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, or Middle Eastern culture of the time, tearing your clothing was a very poignant sign of anger or grief. In the mind of the high priest, he was enraged or deeply grieved by hearing this blasphemy, and under oath.
Okay, so what? People tore their clothing all the time in the Bible. Go back a little further…
Leviticus 21:10: “The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes.”
When God established the priesthood, he described all the clothing that the high priest should wear, along with very specific rules for them to follow, most relevant here: The high priest must never tear this garment.
Also in Leviticus, Moses’s nephews Nadab and Abihu (the sons of Aaron, the original high priest), were struck dead by God because they used the wrong kind of fire in warship (Leviticus 10). Obviously, God was not making empty threats. Lots of people died at this time because they were not following God’s instructions exactly.
And therein lies the symbolism that most every church glosses over. When Jesus said, under oath, that He was in fact the Son of God, He was reclaiming the place of the high priest. (In Catholicism and other denominations, we still refer to Jesus as “The Great High Priest” today.)
As He said this, the other high priest (Caiaphas) tore his robe. Caiaphas meant it as an act of outrage, but symbolically, he also relinquished his title and authority back to Jesus.
One more thing. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, among His final words He says, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” This is the first line of Psalm 22. Apparently, the Jewish teachers of the day would instruct their students to memorize all of the Psalms. They would test them by saying the first sentence of the Psalm, and the students would then have to recite the rest of it. So Jesus, as a teacher, was saying, “go and read the rest of this Psalm. You’ll see that I am fulfilling this prophecy.” Given the amount pain he must have been in from His recent scourging and crucifixion, it’s hard to imagine that a regular human (someone who wasn’t the son of God) would care that much about his students’ lesson to just “teach” right up to the point of His death.
Hopefully, these two little bits of not-so-trivial trivia add a little color and context into your Palm Sunday.
Happy Holy Week!