Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hymns for Lent I: Ride on, Ride on in Majesty

INTRODUCTORY NOTE:  In the weeks before Christmas, I blogged through several of my favorite (fairly) well known Christmas carols.  It was a very helpful, and a great reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.  I've decided to do something similar for Lent--just seven this time, not twelve.  It will be a bit tricky, since it's hard to find hymns that meditate on Christ's suffering without moving on to celebrate His resurrection.  But then, perhaps that is for the best, since He is risen.  Anyway, here goes.

Traditionally speaking, Lent is a time of somber meditation and self-denial. During this season we remember the temptation of Jesus Christ and his eventual death on the cross. The culmination of Lent is Holy Week--the week leading up to Easter. (An excellent timeline of the Holy Week is available here.)  It's easy to skip ahead to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and we'll be talking a lot about the events of those days in this series. But Holy Week doesn't start in Gethsemane. It starts on the Sunday before, on the road into Jerusalem.  Which is where our first hymn starts off.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes Hosanna cry;
The humble beast pursues his road
With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die!
O Christ! Thy triumph now begin
Over captive death and conquered sin. 
Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
The angel armies of the sky
Look down with sad and wond'ring eyes
To see the approaching sacrifice. 
Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
The Father, on His sapphire throne,
Expects His own anointed Son. 
Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, Thy power, and reign.
Jesus didn't just end up in Jerusalem by accident.  He went there on purpose, with a purpose: to die and be raised to life.  (Matt 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34) As we'll see later, he predicted his death with considerable accuracy.  But first things first.  First, he had to enter the city.

So he did.  Boy, did he.  He didn't walk, though.  He rode into the city on a young donkey. As with all the other details of his life, this was no accident.  Matthew and Mark both record Jesus sending two disciples into a village, where--he says--they will find a donkey colt that has never been ridden. (Matt. 21:1-3; Mark 11:1-3)  He also helpfully predicts that they won't have any trouble convincing the village folks to let them take the donkey, and he's right. (Mark 11:4-6)

Why all this fuss about a donkey?  Jesus had walked everywhere else; his own two feet had been plenty sufficient to take him over hills and through cities--even across the sea.  So why a donkey?  Why now?  Some have speculated that the donkey was an animal of peace (in contrast to the horse, seen as an animal of war), thus demonstrating Christ's rule as a Prince of Peace and not a political ruler sent to wage war on Rome.  But whatever the symbolism, the manner of his entry was, quite simply, the fulfillment of a centuries-old prophecy: that the Messiah would come riding on a donkey colt. (Zech. 9:9, also the subject of Handel's famous aria 'Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion')

And ride on a colt he did.  And the people responded.  In what would be the strongest show of support during his earthly ministry, the people scattered their cloaks on the road, along with tree branches--a sign of honor in their culture, tantamount to rolling out the red carpet today. (Matt. 21:8; Mark 11:8)  John is the only one to specifically mention the palm branches that give rise to the tradition of Palm Sunday (John 12:13), though this is not the last time palm branches are associated with the worship of the Messiah. (Rev. 7:9)  Even the cries of the crowd have their root in Scripture, as they adopt the words of the Psalmist as their own. (Ps. 118:25-26; 'hosanna' means 'save', in case you were curious)

Of course, as we'll soon see, this crowd was far from constant in its affections.  In a few short days, Christ would be derided and tortured, his claim to royalty mocked as soldiers dressed him in a purple cloak and rammed a crown of thorns on his head.  But for one brief moment, Jesus was lauded on earth as the King he truly was, while he marched on to the death that would establish his rule forever.  That's the focus of this hymn.

In the first verse, we see the earthly scene. We see Christ riding on a donkey, worshiped by the all tribes, nations, people, and languages (in a small preview of the eternal worship to come).  (Rev. 7:9-10)  The second verse gives us a peek behind the scenes, so to speak.  We see the purpose of this triumphal entry, and indeed of whole incarnation:  death.  And not just any death, but a death that would defeat sin and even death itself.  (I Cor. 15:54-57)  We get a glimpse of the mystifying paradox of the gospel--a humble king (Phil. 2:5-11), the God-man (John 1:1-214, come in lowly pomp, to win by (apparently) losing.

(The third verse is a bit of a throwaway, as we get a largely unnecessary account of the angel spectators.  Which isn't really in the Bible, though we do know that angels were available to come to Jesus' aid at his mere word. (Matt. 26:53))

The fourth verse foreshadows the crucifixion even more clearly--'thy last and fiercest strife is nigh'.  On the cross, Jesus would endure not only 'mortal pain' and death (described in the final verse of this hymn), but would be estranged from his beloved Father (Matt. 27:46), their perfect loving communion disrupted as Jesus bore the wrath of God for the sins of his people--past, present, and future. (Is. 53)

These events took place under the watchful eyes of the sovereign God, seated on his sapphire throne (Eze. 1:25-27; 10:1) and awaiting the death of his Son, who has been anointed as as Prophet (the Word of God) (John 1:1), the great high priest (Heb. 4:14) who sacrifices on our behalf (I John 2:2), and the ultimate King who will one day sit on a throne of his own, to be worshiped for eternity.  Indeed, in the last couplet, we see the pivotal paradox--that by bowing his head to death and pain, Christ will demonstrate that he is worthy of this worship (Rev. 5:6-14), and he will reign forever and ever (Rev. 11:15).


In Palm Sunday, we get a pale foreshadowing of future glory.  But before Christ is raised from the dead and worshiped on his throne, he must endure the anguish and betrayal of Gethsemane and the agony and shame of the cross.  In the next entry in this series, we'll turn our focus to Gethsemane.

No comments: