John August Swanson Acrylic 1990
Today Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of Jesus. He and the Disciples are journeying to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They have recently come from Bethany, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
In the days it took Jesus to reach the city of Jerusalem, the story of the miracle of Lazarus spread quickly. The teachings of Jesus were already somewhat known in the area, and His arrival caused quite a commotion. When it became known that Jesus was entering Jerusalem, the people went out into the streets to see who He was, and to welcome Him. The people spread cloaks and branches for His donkey to tread on. They sang Psalms and celebrated.
Palm Sunday is my favorite liturgical day of the year. When people hear this, they generally think it is because it’s a happy, celebratory occasion. That is not the reason. It’s actually much more ominous and reflective.
I have a horrible fear of mob mentality. I always have. I hate crowds and crowded spaces. I might blame it on reading Lord of the Flies when I was a bit too young. More likely, it’s from watching a terrifying episode of The Twighlight Zone entitled “The Shelter” (also at a young age).
A group of friendly neighbors turn on each other when the Civil Defense makes an announcement that an object is heading their way. They assume they are facing the impending doom of a nuclear attack, and desperately seek help from the only family with a fallout shelter, the same family they teased moments before for its existence. I probably watched that episode twenty-five or thirty years ago, and I still have nightmares about it.
What does this have to do with Palm Sunday and the happy ride into Jerusalem on a donkey by Jesus? For me, it’s a stark reminder of how quickly things can change, especially when people aren’t thinking for themselves. In just a few short days, Judas betrays Jesus. But more importantly, the crowd, this very same crowd cheering, turns on Him and call for His life.
One reason I think they are so easily swayed is because of their lack of information and knowledge about who He was. While they joined the exalted cheering and singing of Psalms, they yelled out, “who is it?” Matthew’s gospel says there was a pretty generic answer given, “Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”(Matthew 21:10-11).
This reminds me of being in the airport and seeing everyone grab their phones and rush to get a photo of someone you don’t recognize. Someone throws out a name that is vaguely familiar or a movie or TV show you’ve heard of, so you grab your phone and get excited as well. But when someone else somehow becomes more popular for a day or two, you suddenly find you’re more interested in Barabbas the thief than the prophet you were infatuated with days before.
You follow the whims of the crowd, however uniformed, however dangerous. This is what Palm Sunday teaches me. Think for yourself. Be informed. And be leery of masses of people who don’t.
John August Swanson is a painter and serigrapher. I’ve nearly used his paintings for this blog for several different Christian holidays, but for various reasons have always chosen something else. He has an immense body of religious work, but also some secular as well, including an excellent circus series.
I love that his work is influenced by his mother’s Mexican tradition, but mixed with a look of Russian iconography. The facial features remind me of Medieval religious work, but the color palette is more Mexican folk or early 20th Century American Regionalism. It gives the feeling of representing a historical event, while simultaneously seeming modern and current.
My favorite part of this painting is the clouds. I think that’s why this painting fits me so much better than most other paintings of the triumphal entry. They give the feeling that something is about to change, something is coming. It might be a celebration now, but something foreboding lies ahead for Jesus.
So while we celebrate, let us look to what we know the rest of the week will bring.
See more of John August Swanson’s work here: John August Swanson
Read the Biblical texts of the triumphal entry here: Matthew 21:1-11