Picture this, a pleasantly warm day in the Holy City Jerusalem that is decked out in festive dress, for the approaching feast of an international commemoration; of the Jewish people, the Passover. An excited crowd is gathered at the gate of the city holding flowers and palm branches, waiting for the imminent arrival of a Man who preached the Good News and promised to those who listened to Him, Deliverance -their Hope, Justice, Love, and a place for them in God's Kingdom.
This is all presented in this sacred icon-illumination of Jesus, The Christ, The Messiah and His triumphant entry into the Holy City and, into the hearts of His followers. And to this day we continue to remember and observe this on Palm Sunday.
For Christ, it is His final and triumphal completion of a three-year mission for which God Our Father had sent Him. He came to open the roadway to Heaven for all who accepted Him. On that first Palm Sunday, many raised their voices recognizing Him as the King of Glory, the long-awaited Anointed One.
Here we are now at the threshold of Holy Week, in the Armenian Church and we recall this awesome event known in Armenian as Dzaghgazart; more accurately translated girded or decorated with flowers. But why flowers, why palms and why this annual celebration?
This feast day concludes the stern mood of Great Lent and our preparation for the foretaste of the Easter joy. Christ entering the heart of the City Jerusalem and coming into our hearts, minds, and souls has come to lead us all through His Resurrection finally to arrive at the Gates of Heaven.
The Gospel of John in words vividly describes this wonderful day. But look at his written story painted in the image of these icon-illuminations. We see Christ; the Apostles, the people of all ages, even children at the gates of Jerusalem; they are all part of the story as we know it as one collective scene. The King and Messiah has arrived, and as the Gospel account clearly states, they took branches of palm trees and went forth to meet him. It was a tradition for the to Jews use palm branches to welcome people of high rank as a symbol of honor, respect, of joy-filled hospitality, recognizing the valor of the individual.
Christ preached that His Kingdom was not of this world, and for some of the Jews, it was hard to understand just what He meant. Who was this mighty conqueror of death, they thought. They anticipated something more. They expected His coming to establish the earthly reign of the Kingdom of Israel. Consequently many did not receive what they expected and would eventually renounce what they were offered. Nonetheless, Palm Sunday was euphoric and a decisive step toward the ending of a mission and a new beginning, revealing God's Glory with the Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
Take a glance and see all who came to greet the Lord seated on a donkey side-saddle. This posture was one that royalty often would use, a detail that artist tells and shows us, whereas the write does not. And so Jesus the King is gazing at everyone, with his head turned toward the Apostles, with his hand in a gesture of blessing the crowd who raised their voices in praise, saying the words from Psalm 118: 26, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD., Hosanna to the Son of David, Ovsana ee Partzoons / Hosanna in the highest
On that day the crowd was mixed; those who truly believed, those curious and the doubters of course. But also observe that this scene significantly shows children along with the adults. The children play an important part of the story, welcoming Jesus with their open hearts and minds, their sincerity and trust. Jesus noted this in His ministry when at one time He said about them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.” (Matt. 10:13-16)
Though the Evangelist John does not explicitly mention their presence again the artist does. It would be difficult to imagine such a scene without them and their excitement- climbing up trees, running ahead and also carrying flowers and palms, laying down red carpets before Jesus. Here it is, all in this icon. Note particularly at the bottom part of the icon-illumination the children surround Our Lord, holding branches, while others climb onto tree branches just to catch a glimpse - much like Zacchaeus, seated in a Sycamore tree, did just a few days earlier in Jericho. The children understand who Jesus is, and perhaps- more than the adults- also spread on the ground red garments or carpets before him. Red is an important and significant color denoting royalty. Somehow the children must have known what this was all about, rolling out the red carpet as we say.
Interestingly in the tradition of the Armenian Church on the Feast Day of Palm Sunday, children sometimes, like the ones we see here take an active role in the liturgical celebration, carrying flowers, holding candles and palms and processing with the priest and clergy into the holy sanctuary. Again, the artist has fully captured the crowd of young and old alike. This scene is more compelling than words could and do describe. One picture is worth a thousand words and more.
There is also yet another dramatic service and ritual associated with Jesus' Entrance into the Holy City. It is our Church's service called Trnpatzek [The Opening of the Gates], not of Jerusalem only but an opening into the very core of our heart.
This service marks the beginning of Holy Week observances and is performed in parish churches at different times on Palm Sunday. Sometimes early in the morning at the entry of the church, before the celebration of the Soorp Badarak, or more typically following the Liturgy. The closed curtain symbolizes a door or gate concealing heaven from earth. But, often and in accordance with the traditional practice, it is understood as a door.
The clergy and choir gather with the faithful, at the canonically designated time of the sixth hour or 4 P.M. for Vespers or the evening prayer service which will conclude with Trnpatzek/ Opening the door. The senior priest [if there are more than one in a parish] kneels in front of the closed curtain concealing the Altar and knocks on the doors [Toor], requesting that it be opened, to allow him with his faithful children to enter.
In a lamenting and mournful melody, he chants Patz Mez Der uzToorn voghormooytyan [Open O Lord the door of your mercy] as he knocks on the door seeking entrance. The ritual engages a dialogue between the priest outside and another clergyman from behind the door/curtain, as the voice of Christ is speaking to us all. Here at the gates of heaven, Jesus awaits, us guarding the entrance to the eternal Kingdom of God. At the conclusion of hymns and this dialogue, the priest exclaims Behold me and my children want to see Christ and hear his words ... Open to me O Lord the door of your mercy, ... and make us worthy to be with the saints.
Jesus never ceases to invite us to His Kingdom, reminding us of His words, "I am the door, if anyone enters in by me, he shall be saved." (Jn 10:9).
As Christians in a time far removed from the first Palm Sunday we still contemplate our eventual entrance into Heaven, God's Kingdom, the Hope of Resurrection and Eternal Life. We may wonder what is on the 'other side.' It is Christ Himself who assures us that He is waiting for us to welcome us into the Paradise of Life Everlasting. Though in this frenetic world culture some of us may lose loose heart and fall to despair or are deafened to the sounds that compete with Our Lord's knocking on the doors to our hearts, no matter what, He will still be standing by and move in humbly and quietly.
And so, as this holy icon shows us, we become part of it, we are in the picture… the children of our church, like the crowd at the gates of Jerusalem greeting the Takavor Paratz/ King of Glory Jesus Christ who will never stop knocking - for as he said, I am with you always to the close of the age.
May the story we read in this icon illumination guide us all through the coming week, opening our hearts to Our Lord's call to us as we once again say Hail the King of Glory saying: "Orhnyal yegyal anvamp Diarrn - Blessed is He who has come in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest!"
Father Garabed Kochakian
Palm Sunday 2017