Giotto di Bondone, “Entry into Jerusalem,” circa 1305
Palm Sunday is a day of high emotions, teetering on the edge between happiness and heartbreak. Giotto’s Entry into Jerusalem from the Scrovegni Chapel invites us into a scene of celebration, and true to his form, Giotto draws us beyond the formality of the Byzantine style, and presents a true to life, vibrant scene. It is a celebration, but one that we cannot give ourselves over to fully; it is a scene of contradictions. Indications of the celebration are set in a scene with an ultramarine blue sky, silver-green olive trees, and the gleaming white walls of the city that provide the backdrop to a brightly clad cavalcade of people who meet in the center of the scene. A crowd processes out of Jerusalem to meet Christ and his disciples. Some people wave palm fronds, some climb trees to get a better view, and some are removing their garments to lay before the hooves of the donkey that carries Christ. Yet, there is something foreboding about the faces of the crowd: intense, hungry expressions fixed on Christ. On the periphery of our awareness hovers the line from the Psalm: “Many dogs surround me, a pack of evildoers closes in upon me.”
Christ and the disciples meet the approaching crowd. The big, docile donkey drives a wedge into the crowd, plodding forward with humility and good will, come what may. Christ on the donkey’s back is determined, blessing the crowd as he advances, his gaze resting on the boy waving the palm. His face is a visual depiction of the line from Isaiah: “I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” It is a face that is resolved but peaceful, with a quiet gratitude for the crowd that exclaims “Hosanna!” to welcome him and a deep trust in the love of the Father to see him through what he is approaching.
The exclamation “Hosanna!” is a way to praise God, but also carries the literal meaning “God save us.” The children climbing up and tangled in the trees, the palm frond raised above the donkey like a scourge, the donkey as the humble beast of burden, and the people stripping down their garments all evoke moments of the passion and hint at what is to come after this Palm Sunday. Between happiness and heartbreak, this day calls us to let go and give our fears, sorrows, and burdens over to Christ as he approaches Calvary.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.
In Chapter 5 of the Special Seasons and Lessons section of Christ Our Life, Grade 7, young people learn about and reflect on the story of Palm, or Passion, Sunday, and Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Invite young people into a prayerful discussion of the Scripture readings for Palm Sunday. Point out that the first Gospel reading is proclaimed at the doors of the church before the procession with the palm branches. This Gospel reading tells how Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of welcome and praise. Ask young people: Why were the crowds so welcoming? What did Jesus’ presence mean to them? How do you think they felt seeing Jesus? After open discussion, say: We know the events that will happen; the shouts of praise will become cries for Jesus’ death on the cross in only a few days. That is why Palm Sunday is also called Passion Sunday, because in the second Gospel reading, we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus’ passion and death. Invite young people to think about the people in the crowd. Note that their minds were changed so quickly and that sometimes, we too, may act against God’s will because it’s popular to do so or we’re too scared to speak up. Invite volunteers to share any last thoughts on the painting or the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before closing the session.