Reflections for Palm Sunday
Why are you holding strips of palm right now?
I don’t mean “why” like this is catechism class, like Question: why do we wave palms on Palm Sunday? Answer: to remember Jesus’ entry into the holy city of Jerusalem when the people met him with leafy branches like a King. The prayer of blessing over those palms asks that they be signs for us of his victory. But why act it out in the parking lot? Why do I have, as one of my few, really vivid childhood memories of church, an indifferent-looking donkey being led up and down a lawn?
Partly, its tradition.
We don’t simply listen to this story because Christians have always walked and waved this story. If you were a pilgrim to Jerusalem just a few hundred years after the Jesus came, you would have gone with crowds carrying branches and palms, following the Bishop from the Mount of Olives into the city. Was it probably easier for them to squint and see it happening,
right there in the self-same dust? Easier than our parking lot, I mean. Probably. But they were still asked to go into it with their bodies, into the jostle of bodies, the smell of hot olive leaves, the glimpses of the donkey, the disjointed wail of psalms. And maybe, for a second, some piece of you could say: “Here I am. Its that day and I showed up.”
What could we be asked to imagine?
Another passover. But maybe its the Passover. The last Passover. The people know Jesus is going to Jerusalem. He preaches that the kingdom of God is at hand, nearer than it has ever been. Something is going to happen. So when Jesus leaves Jericho the crowd goes with him to Bethany, just outside the great city, where he stops. He sends disciples into the village to fetch him a donkey and to let word spread into the city that the Teacher has come and is waiting to enter.
The City of David is swollen with pilgrims from the countryside. From far off in Syria, in Aegyptus. Hundreds of thousands pack the streets and the marketplaces—working their way into the courtyards of the Temple to bring their offerings, to be ritually purified by the sprinkling of the thousands of priests, trying to get a place to stay—a room, a roof—so that their household can eat the passover meal. Eager, impatient, excited, frustrated. And armed. A man in each household, at least, goes with a slaughtering knife in their belt as a symbol and the actual instrument of the sacrifice of the lambs. It is the festival of blood on the doorpost and dead Egyptians on the beach, YHWH fighting for Israel—an Exodus that wasn’t yet complete. Its heated anticipation. Its piled, dry brush.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor over Judea, wants as little as possible to do with the actual management of Jerusalem. His purpose is to preserve the peace, and his instrument is the High Priest of the Temple; Caiaphas runs the city and the temple guards keep order. But things have gone wrong at Passover before, so Pilate leaves his villa and headquarters at the coast and processes down into the city with his command of Roman soldiers. They’re hated, their presence itself is an offense. Its a fine line: menace with the sword, without starting a riot. Place a really sharp incentive behind your man Caiaphas to keep a reign on the crowds and douse any sparks before a fire gets out of hand.
But that’s about to happen.
The herald disciples find a donkey for Jesus, and word spreads.
A crowd—is it Galileans who’ve heard him, is it Jerusalem people who’ve heard of him?—goes out to meet Jesus and the band coming with him.
They’re heard what he’s saying, and now they’ll say it for him with their bodies and shouts. They greet him like a conqueror with this rare and profound gesture of praise, spreading their cloaks out on the road for him to walk on. Then they assemble a proper triumphal procession,
some going ahead of him, and some following him. And he rides, an unarmed king. And the people go with him shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They bless him, shouting this thanksgiving hymn, this ancient victory song. They know what they’re doing. They’ve showed up on the day the Messiah and the Kingdom comes.
But they don’t know what its going to look like.
Whatever faction assembled in Pilate’s courtyard to condemn him in the end, whoever shouted “crucify him,” the crowd was with Jesus. The crowd was so volatile and energetic in its enthusiasm for Jesus that Mark describes how the chief priests, again and again, agree that Jesus must be gotten rid of, but they don’t dare do anything for fear of the people. They ultimately need Judas—Judas is only useful as a betrayer—because he offers a way to get Jesus away from the crowds, while everyone is eating the passover.
The crowd was with Jesus. They knew that this healer, this reconciler of the lost, this lover of souls, riding on a donkey was the one God had sent into the world with might to turn it upside down.
And when I say knew, I mean that some part of them caught that possibility by their fingernails before it blew away.
As the city stirred awake later that week they found that Pilate had him on a Roman cross with a sign above his head reading “King of the Jews.” Pilate and Caiaphas could have quietly murdered him. But Pilate meant Jesus himself to be a sign—a sign to the crowd that they were wrong about the man from Nazareth, and to get back on with their lives. Which is what very nearly everyone did.
What had they been a part of?
What did that victorious procession into the city mean?
Those of us who’ve walked with this story know that Jesus had told his friends what was going to happen when the power of God coming into the world met the powers that ordered the world: A cross. That would be the last procession, the consequence and fulfillment of his life— God’s life—in flesh here with us.
And it is the beginning of the world again.
I’m talking about crowds so much this morning because we have long read the Jerusalem crowd as a seething mob that hailed Jesus but, in the end, demanded that Jesus’s life be wrung out of him, no matter the evidence in our own holy texts. And that is simply mangled, distorted history. Pilate and elites of the city had Jesus publicly humiliated and killed because the crowd was with him. And reading against the evidence, the reading of a crowd that pivots violently, has shaped the accusation hung around the necks of the numberless Jews hounded across continents, dispossessed, murdered, for centuries.
In recent times, we have tried to hold onto that traditional reading in light of that history, by identifying ourselves with the crowd. We have made the crowd ourselves, and the condemning crowd a story about the ways we refuse and reject Jesus. And that has become its own reason for continuing to read and proclaim this text as an indictment. That’s why the congregation is usually invited to take the part of the crowd when the Passion Gospel is read.
I won’t ask you to say “crucify him,” to give your voice the words of those who wanted rid of Jesus. I won’t, because I look at you now and I know that something has happened in your life that told you that Jesus, and the way of Jesus, offers life. Inextinguishable life. An answer to our traps, our endless cycles of grief and wounding. Or maybe you are longing for a reason to believe. You hope.
And hope can be fleeting, darting. So hope. Hope with the people who saw him ride into Jerusalem and grasped at him. Hope with the ones who saw him hanging, and thought
“maybe, still, somehow.”
And come. I invite you to stay on the journey though Holy Week together, to come together as we face the events, and meditate on the meaning, of Jesus last days in Jerusalem. His passion and death. We are standing within the heart of the our Christian life.