Tag Archives: passover

Entry into the City

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.

Swanson detail

Detail of Entry into the City

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



Death of the Pharaoh’s Firstborn Son

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema  Oil Painting  1872

There are two sides to every story.  Realistically, there are multiple views to every story.

And Moses said, “Thus says Yahweh, ‘About the middle of the night I will go out through the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the pair of millstones and every firstborn animal. And there will be a great cry of distress in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has not been nor will be again.   Exodus 11: 4-6*

Tonight Jews and (some) Christians celebrate Passover.  They remember the actions of Moses and Aaron  that led to the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  They thank God for persuading the pharaoh to free them.  However, we may want to take a moment to remember the “persuasion” tactics.

Read the quote above a second time.  Yes, he was enslaving what’s said to be hundreds of thousands of people.  Yes, he had nine plagues before this to free the slaves.  Yes, he was duly warned.  And yes, he was a father.  He mourned bitterly for the death of his son, as did every other non-Israelite in all of Egypt.

Think about that.  Think of every father and mother, brother and sister, grandparent, friend.  Think of every innocent child.   “And there will be a great cry of distress in all the land of Egypt, the like of which has not been nor will be again.”

When Passover is celebrated this evening we’ll thank God for passing over the doors of those that made the sacrifice of the lamb and marked their lintels with the blood.  We’ll thank God for being delivered from slavery.  We’ll thank God for sending Moses and Aaron to lead.  I ask that everyone also take one moment to remember the loss of children, the innocents who were sacrificed due to the decision of one man and one God.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tedama was a Dutch painter who moved to England in his early 30s.  He lived there the rest of his life and eventually earned partial rights as a British denizen.  Classically trained, he is most well known for his wonderful paintings of classic Greece and Rome.  Although generally considered a Victorian painter, he knew many of the most influential Pre-Raphaelites and was obviously influenced by their work.

I find this painting of the pharaoh with his dead son in his arms so striking.  I know it doesn’t seem to fit the occasion, but as I mentioned at the beginning, every story has two sides.  The child’s mother has collapsed on her son.  The servants wail and mourn the loss.  In the background dancers and musicians play.  And in the upper right corner, Moses and Aaron await the decision of the pharaoh to let their people go.  I like to believe they also said a prayer for those lost.

The deep gold tones of this painting really set the mood.  The candles are well represented as the light sources and cast eerie shadows.  The pale skin of the dead child and his grief stricken mother draw your eye directly to them, then straight up to the face of the pharaoh, stunned, shocked at the pain.  He has decided the God of the Jews is strong.  He will let the people go.

Sorry to make this one so gloomy.  It really is a day of celebration.  Chag Pesach Sameach.  Happy Passover.

*I prefer the Lexham English Bible translation.  I also realize that for many this is not a historical story, but a myth or fairytale.  I think it really doesn’t matter how you look at the story, as long as you think about the fact that every decision made has a consequence, good or bad.