One Palm Sunday, at St John’s United in Marathon, Ont., we accidentally ordered full-sized palm fronds instead of the wispy, slender leaves normally on hand for the occasion. The kite-sized branches made up a sea of green. Laughter and a warm breeze stirred the sanctuary. Had our mistake not been so expensive, we might have ordered them again the following year.
Even without the giant fronds, Palm Sunday is usually a bit of a party. The kids tickle one another’s ears with leaves. We parade around the sanctuary warmed by sunbeams and the promise of spring. We sing He Came Riding on a Donkey. We even overcome our sense of liturgical propriety and shout, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”
After worship, someone who remembers how it’s done guides the rest of us in folding the leaf strips into crosses. I save some to burn the next year on Ash Wednesday.
Like many congregations, we’ve moved from Palm Sunday to Palm/Passion Sunday. Otherwise, with so few attending Good Friday services later in the week, we end up catapulted from palms to praise and the rolled away stone. The palms, parades and donkey riding happen with the children, early in the liturgy. Crosses, thorny crowns and agony are kept under wraps until the kids are safe with crafts and snacks down in the basement.
The service and the week it commemorates have always felt to me like an abrupt and inexplicable U-turn from shouts of joy to cries of suffering. How could things have gone so wrong in such a short time? Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan begin their book The Last Week with a reminder that in the year AD 30, in the days leading up to Passover, there was not just one but two processions entering Jerusalem. And they were on a collision course.
From the east, amid whispers of revolt, Jesus rides in on a donkey, proclaiming the empire of God. He called it the “kingdom of God.” Hearts pounding with fear, his companions follow in disorderly formation. Hopeful peasants, spoiling for a fight with “the man,” cheer them on.
From the west, amid rising dust and the thunder of cavalry hoofs, soldiers march in, visible and audible even from a distance. This shock and awe battalion is led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who is rolling into town to assert the authority of the Roman Empire. He will answer any insurrection with an iron fist. Pilate, and by extension Caesar, is greeted by the upper crust of Jerusalem. If this were a Hollywood movie, ominous music would swell and dark clouds would rumble on the horizon.
Jesus’ “triumphant” entry into the city is a planned, orchestrated political statement. It is dangerous street theatre. Code words are exchanged between disciples and clandestine followers of Jesus. A donkey is turned over to the disciples. The action begins.
Jesus rides into town on the donkey, a brazen nod to the prophet Zechariah and his well-known prediction that a king would come, humble and riding on a donkey, to liberate Jerusalem. But there is already a governor: Pilate. And there is already a “King of the Jews,” a title given to Herod. And there is Caesar, known far and wide as the “Son of God.” The palm parade is the counterpoint, a non-violent mockery of the Roman military parade on the other side of the city.
On another Palm Sunday in Marathon, I told the story of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem and assigned the congregation various speaking parts. Each time I said “Jesus,” for example, everyone shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” Loic, a child who was eight or nine at the time, provided a wonderful “hee-haw” whenever I said “donkey.” Each time I used the word “disciples,” the congregation worried aloud, “Oh boy, here we go.” I think I got that last part right. The disciples must have been filled with a gut-churning mixture of fear and anticipation following Jesus into the city.
We’ve kind of let the air out of that about-to-burst tension that is Palm Sunday. We’ve made it soft, safe and fun. Or put it on a string for the boys and girls like something that floats above a summer midway. Robbed it of insurrection, as though it were not something that was about to explode. We’ve done our best to domesticate this revolutionary gauntlet thrown down to the Roman Empire. Who knew the sanctuary parade was, in fact, practice for non-violent civil disobedience?
Maybe our church has done too much mixing of the empire of God with the empire of Rome since then. Maybe it is less clear to us than it was to our earliest ancestors in the Way which parade we are marching in. Christendom has cut a lot of deals with “Rome” since that first Palm Sunday. We’ve accommodated the Caesars and compromised with the Herods of the world.
Palm Sunday awakens us to the great chasm between the empires of God and of Caesar. That’s where we live our lives. It is one of those days in the liturgical year that calls us to choose in which parade we will march. To which ruler, which empire, will we bow down and give our hearts, our lives? We know full well that to choose to walk down into Jerusalem with Jesus is the more dangerous choice.
But we have Jesus’ promise and the witness of his life, death and resurrection that his is the path to the fullness of life. The promises are a bit vague, but the love of Jesus and of the journey toward God’s dream in the world carries us forward. So we wave a palm, clear our throats and cry out with joy, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”
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