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Jean Francois and I were together. It was a typically grey, overcast day but in the city, the excitement was high. The crowds were milling around outside the pubs and in the squares. People were selling programmes, shorts and pennants. We were in Cardiff on the way to Cardiff Arms Park for a Five Nations match between France and Wales. Naturally the Welsh, passionate about singing and Rugby, were in good voice and strong in numbers for this vital game between Gallic rivals. The whole city was alive with the prospect; conversation was about nothing else. The visiting French, pursued by a cloud of Gauloises’ smoke, roamed through the pedestrian precincts, equipped with flasks of Calvados, proud and confident in l’equipe Francaise. As kick off time approached, the atmosphere got hotter. The authorities became more visible, mounted on huge police horses, increasing their vigilance for the sign of sparks that might ignite trouble.
So it must have been in Jerusalem that day as huge crowds gathered to celebrate the Passover festival, a time when expectations of God’s deliverance always reached fever heat among the pilgrims and when resentment of the Romans was a touch paper for nationalist passion.
And into all this came Jesus, letting go or more exactly throwing away the secrecy that had shielded his early ministry. Jesus came, this healer of the sick, the infirm, the blind, the deaf and the possessed. He came with his followers, in careful fulfilment of the images of Zechariah:
“Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion,” says the prophet “Shout daughter of Jerusalem, see your king comes to you righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Jesus has stepped out; now he is in the public arena as never before at the centre of the Jewish world, his time has come and he proclaims himself in his arrival at this time of heightened sensitivity, sensation, suspicion and after all hope, as the expected one setting off the adulation of the crowd.
“Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest heaven” they chant, they spread their cloaks before him laying down palm fronds, the very accolade that Roman emperors would give to victors in their games. The excitement mounts, the crowd whispers to one another that he is here, the roars increase and the authorities, mounted and vigilant cannot fail to take careful note.
Of course we now know that the crowd has the wrong idea about what will happen next. The people expect a sacking of the establishment, the collapse of the oppressive Roman occupiers, the overthrow of this to them modern day Pharaoh and for them to be saved from the deeply felt and hated tyranny of empire. But what happens next is not an assault on the Roman garrison or their seat of power.
Jesus instead will go to the Temple, the seat of the High Priests’ power and once there he will overturn the tables of the traders, drive out the money lenders declaring that “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.” Jesus is the promised Messiah but not at all as the crowds expected, he has indeed come to save them but not from the Romans. As he demonstrates by going to the very heart of religious observance, he has come to save them and all of us from ourselves.