Thoughts on Palm Sunday

icon palms

There’s that saying…stop and smell the roses…or stop and smell the flowers. I try really, really hard to cultivate that into my life: letting myself be overcome by the beauty of a sunrise, literally stopping to smell roses, or fresh herbs (especially rosemary or basil).  There is something in those moments where time seems to come to a standstill and I am just present, breathing in the scent of the flower, or the herbs; soaking in the grandeur of the sunrise or the sunset.

But for whatever reason, I struggle with stopping and celebrating the Entry into Jerusalem. As much as I may try to let myself get swept up with the crowd and their shouts of “Hosanna!” their cries of “Save us Lord!”—as much as I may try to be there, to be present, my mind races to what’s coming next. My heart races to the way the shouts will change from celebration to condemnation; from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

I try.  Every stinking year, I try.

I even allow myself to think that if I just sing “Hay-Sanna, Ho-Sanna, Sanna, Sanna, Hay” from Jesus Christ Superstar that I can celebrate, but then I end up thinking that Jesus needed a PR person to help manage the expectations of the crowd and I’m right back where I started: I’m not in the moment of celebration, I’m jumping forward into Friday.

After all, this is such a backwards, upside down moment. We know this passage of scripture as “The Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem.” But, Jesus is not on a white war horse, nor is he brandishing swords and banners, surrounded by soldiers.  He is not Gandalf riding down the hill at first light in the battle of Helm’s Deep; he is not Tywin Lannister riding into King’s Landing to save Cersei and Tommen. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem in a manner befitting a King.

He rides into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey. He is surrounded by a flash mob of sorts, a rag tag crowd of misfits—the blind, the lame, the outcasts, the marginalized. Even though we name today Palm Sunday, there are no palm branches, at least not in Matthew’s narrative. There are tree branches and cloaks, but no palms.  Maybe because palm branches would be too easily identified with the Maccabean revolt and were known as symbols of resistance against Rome.

Jesus enters Jerusalem in an almost anti-triumphal way, which is the way he does so much of his work. Jesus is the King of working in ways that no body really seems to understand. He is the embodiment of the passage from Isaiah, where the Lord says “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

The triumph here is that we encounter a moment where Jesus allows himself to be publicly outed as the Messiah; this is what Matthew tells us with his references to the prophets.  Matthew frequently points to prophetic anticipation of the Messiah with his use of the phrase, “This this took place to fulfill what had been spoken…”

Matthew quotes both Isaiah and Zechariah in his prophetic fulfillment: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See your salvation comes….” (Isa. 66:11b) and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9)

I imagine that the people may have remembered these passages, or maybe Matthew puts them there because he is trying to convince the Jewish seekers of his church that Jesus is the awaited One. Either way, these passages of Messianic anticipation remind us that the people were expecting something, maybe something mighty, maybe a powerful display of anti-Roman sentiment.  Something like the cleansing of the temple—which three of the four gospels put in close proximity to Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. Expectations are very high at this point and the crowds are ready to shout aloud because their king and their salvation has come.

I wonder, was the foal of a donkey a way of Jesus attempting to manage the expectations of the crowd?  Passover isn’t that far away; the people are gathering in Jerusalem in anticipation of the festival that remembers God’s mighty act of deliverance. There is an energy to the crowd because they have seen (or heard from those who had seen) Jesus healing those who suffer; the stories of healing and forgiveness and feeding have spread throughout the region and the crowd is there to witness the spectacle that is surely going to unfold in Jerusalem.

Will this be the time that he throws Rome out of the Holy City? Is this the day of our deliverance? Is the the inauguration of the great and terrible Day of the Lord? The onlookers are there and they hear the crowd and they see the parade; but wait, he’s on a donkey? Why a donkey?

Well, didn’t the prophets say Messiah would come on a donkey?

Hosanna, Lord! Save us, Lord! Do a miracle, Jesus! Heal me, Jesus! Hosanna! Feed me, Jesus! Hosanna! Save me, Jesus! Hosanna!

We aren’t that much different than the crowd. Not really. We have our expectations of what Jesus will do for us.  We come to Jesus, more often than not, looking to him for what he might do for us, not for how we might join him in his ministry of reconciliation. Wanting Jesus to give us this one particular thing, or for him to work in this one particular way.

What if we showed up in the celebration and waited to see how Jesus was going to move, or how Jesus was going to save, or how Jesus was going to work? What if we showed up in the celebration, trusting that Jesus will do something, but open to the mystery of what that thing might be?

Sara Miles tells the story of walking into a church in San Francisco, unsure of what to expect and yet, finding her life transformed:

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamental crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything…

Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food—indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people. (xi)”*

Palm Sunday leaves me unbalanced, in the same way Sara Miles describes her first communion. Maybe because we jump from the celebration and the Hosannas, to the narratives of betrayal, denial, torture and death. The thing is, regardless of how we may expect Jesus to show up, or what we may expect Jesus to do when he shows up, our reason for celebration with songs, and psalms, and palms, is that Jesus does show up. This is the thing that makes me stop on Palm Sunday; not the shouts of the crowd, but the One who sits on the donkey.  Jesus is there in the midst of our confused celebration and he is loving us and he is waiting; waiting for us to open our hearts the way that the gates of Jerusalem were opened.

*Sara Miles, Take This Bread. (Ballantine: New York, 2007).



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