‘When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” Matthew 21:10
Reading the Gospel in English, we lose a sense of what it meant to those who read it in the original Greek. “When Jesus entered Jerusalem”, writes Saint Matthew, the whole city was “stirred”. The word Matthew uses is “eseisthe”, it is the word used about earthquakes; it is the word used of Jesus’ death on Good Friday, where Matthew writes in Chapter 27 Verse 51, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.”
When we read then that on Palm Sunday, “the whole city was stirred,” we are losing something of the power of what Matthew was saying. “Stir” has become a gentle word. To stir food cooking, or to stir oneself, does not suggest a movement that is violent or powerful. Perhaps it would be better if we said the whole city “quaked,” it is a moment where the tremors of the arrival of Jesus were felt across the city; people quaked in anticipation of Jesus.
The reaction to Jesus is one which meant people could not be indifferent; you could not be so shaken by someone and then not ask yourself what you made of this man; you could not ignore him. Jesus’ arrival demanded an answer; it asked people to decide, for him or against him.
In the prophet Isaiah, quaking, trembling at the word of the Lord was a mark of those faithful to God, “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word,” says the Lord in Isaiah 66:2. The people standing in Jerusalem on that Sunday morning would have expected to have felt such a reaction to the arrival of Jesus, as the crowd shouted their “Hosannas”, they would have remembered all the stories they would have learned since childhood; they would have remembered the accounts of Moses meeting with the Lord, they would have remembered the story of Elijah; they would have remembered the story of the people of Israel and God’s dealings with his people. They would expect to be shaken by the blessed one who came in the name of the Lord.
Twenty centuries later, reading the story as we do each year, how do we respond? How do we feel as we read the story of Jesus? Has it become so familiar that we no longer think about it? Have we lost a sense of its power? When we read that the whole city was “stirred” do we feel even a ripple of emotion?
These are powerful moments, these are moments that shake not the whole city, but the whole world and the whole of history. Whatever people may believe about him now, Jesus is the man who divides history. The calendar used around the world is the one centred upon this man from Galilee. Even if were for that reason alone, that we call this year 2017, we should think seriously about what he means to us.
Jesus shakes the city on Palm Sunday and he shakes it again on Good Friday; his death is something that causes the earth itself to quake, “The earth shook and the rocks split.” Anyone, present at that moment would have felt its power; they would have known this was something more than a time one could describe in words, that it was a moment to tremble before the Lord.
Do we ever have that sense of God? Do we ever have a sense of his presence that is so powerful it feels like a physical force?
“Eseisthe,” stirred or quaked, is a verb. The noun is “seismos,” a word we may have encountered on the television news in reports on earthquakes and tsunamis—an expert on such phenomena being described as a seismologist. “Eseisthe” appears twice in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday. “Seismos” also appears twice, and like “eseisthe”, its power gets lost in translation.
In Saint Matthew Chapter 8 Verse 24, Matthew uses the word “seismos”. He writes, “Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.” The storm on the lake is a “seismos” in Matthew’s account of events; a moment that made the disciples physically tremble. Had we been in their situation, faced with drowning, we would also have trembled, cried out with fear at what seemed to be about to happen. It would not be hard to have imagined how they would have woken Jesus, with great vigour and great urgency. Then Jesus stills the storm and they are amazed—the quaking fear that filled their hearts would have been replaced with a quiet sense of awe at what they had seen happen.
There is a physical response to the situation in the boat—hearts would have been racing, hands would have shaken, and they would have gone pale with fear. In that extreme situation, they call to Jesus for help.
If we are honest, we will admit that we are like the disciples in the boat, that when we face moments that are terrifying, that make us physically shake, we will look to God for aid. Sometimes, it is only when we physically quake, that we are shaken spiritually, that we are prompted to ask what it is that we really believe.
The second occasion that Matthew uses “seismos,” in Saint Matthew Chapter 28 Verse 2, it is translated straightforwardly as “earthquake.” On that first Easter morning, says Matthew, “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.” It is the moment that shook not just the place around it, but shook the whole of history. If the disciples have quaked with fear at the violent storm on the lake, they will shake with excitement and joy at what happened in the garden early that Sunday.
When we hear the story of the resurrection, how do we respond? It would have prompted the friends of Jesus to literally jump for joy, do we even get excited at such astonishing news?
The word “stirred” at the start of this Holy Week asks us questions about how we listen to the story and how, in our hearts, we react to what we hear. What does the story really mean to us? From Palm Sunday to Good Friday, do we really engage, with the events, or do we let them pass us by, like a television programme we are only half watching?
What is it that stirs us? If the story of Jesus dying and rising again, if the story of the power of death itself being destroyed is not sufficient to move us, then what do we believe? What else is there that can have such power?