On this Palm Sunday, due to the pandemic we miss the palm procession by our young people that usually leads us into worship this day. That palm parade helps bring alive for us the gospel story we recount every Palm Sunday of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, welcomed and flanked by crowds waving palm branches, shouting with hopeful joy, ‘Hosanna! (meaning “Save us!). Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord – the king of Israel!” It’s Passover time when Jesus makes his entry, the annual festival when Jews commemorate the Exodus – when God delivered their ancestors out of Egyptian slavery. The city of Jerusalem was exceptionally full of people as pilgrims from all over the region had come to worship at the Temple in celebration of Passover.
At least some of that crowd were ecstatic to welcome Jesus. According to today’s scripture from John’s gospel, Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem was a “direct reaction to the raising of Lazarus [from the dead],” as biblical scholar Gary Wills points out (What Jesus Meant,96-97). We heard this story earlier in Lent, of Jesus’ miraculous sign in nearby Bethany of bringing his dear friend Lazarus, who had been dead for 4 days, back to life. The eye witnesses and those many others who heard about Jesus’ working this sign came to see in him the promised Messiah of God, whose arrival they had been waiting for to deliver them from the harsh rule of their oppressors and occupiers, the Roman Empire.
Faithful Jews would have recognized Jesus as the one their scriptures prophesied about, as in the Zechariah 9:9-10: “Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you – righteous, victorious, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariots, horses and weapons of war. He will speak peace to the nations. His rule will stretch from sea to sea.”
That Jesus was riding a donkey was one of the sure signs this was all about to unfold! Imagine what the crowd of Jesus fans and followers was thinking and feeling – filled with hopeful anticipation, perhaps thinking that, as they waved their palm branches, Jesus surely has it all planned out, that any minute now he will summon some troops and begin the revolt that will overthrow their oppressors. He’ll run the Roman soldiers and leaders – the whole empire – out of the city and off their land!
But nothing went as the Jesus crowd expected. That moment of glory, when Jesus and the donkey entered in, would prove to be just that – a moment. Things began to go very wrong. Instead of a military coup that would replace the Roman Emperor with King Jesus, in just a few days he’ll be arrested, tried, tortured. He will be crowned but not by his followers and not with a crown made of royal gold, but with a crown of thorns by his persecutors. And what comes soon after? The cross – the height of his passion, his suffering.
As much as Jesus tried to explain what God’s Kingdom was really all about – that it was not of this world – he knew his followers couldn’t fully understand. He knew the hosannas and praise would soon turn to shock, disappointment, anger, and violence (Wills) – not wielded by him as their hoped for Military Messiah, but wielded against him. And what was his crime? In performing his miraculous signs – turning water into wine, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, speech to the non-speaking, raising the dead – he had no war horse or weapons. When he came to teach, preach and protest in villages, towns, synagogues and the Temple, he came with no armed battalion. Instead, as Wills reminds us, “He comes with a [most unexpected power] – the universal solvent of love” (98).
Author GK Chesterton expresses the irony of that first Palm Sunday and Holy Week through the experience of the donkey that Jesus rode upon in a poem:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
If you’ve ever had a donkey as a neighbor, you may be
nodding your head. Strangely eared, monstrous head, and a sickening cry indeed, heard at any hour of the day or night, seemingly for no reason. How ironic, that such an animal should serve as a Divine messenger in that fierce and sweet hour of palms and glory.
Can you recall a sweet time of glory and hope, when all seemed right in the world? Pause for a moment and recall the feelings. And now pause to notice where God was in that experience for you?
As for every experience, eventually that glorious, hopeful moment or season came to an end, perhaps abruptly, or with an unexpected or tragic outcome. We witnessed the palm branches we waved during that sweet time turn to ashes. Recall the feelings. Where was God in that hard experience for you?
Most of us may remember for the rest of our lives where we were one year ago. In March 2020 we were going about our lives in our usual way and suddenly that way ended, as COVID-19 sent us and much of the world into lock down. Life as we knew it came to a stop and we had no say in it; we had little choice in the midst of it. Our every-day sort of palm branches began to wither. Can you recall the feelings?
Our Jewish siblings began this year’s Passover celebration this weekend. Part of their Seder meal, serving as the traditional bitter herb, is horseradish root. Horseradish stings the nasal passages, burns the throat, it’s harsh and painful and meant remind them of the harsh, bitter life of slavery their ancestors endured under Egyptian rule so long ago. When they eat the horseradish, they experience that bitterness in connection with their ancestors as they remember that God is a deliverer and longs to deliver them, too, from any affliction. In a recent NPR interview with a Jewish woman who was preparing the Passover Seder for her family, the woman shared that “some argue that harshness and pain isn’t a feeling people need much help accessing right now, on this second pandemic passover.” She said she herself is “already there”, but that maybe the bitter horseradish will help bring her out of the numbness she lives with from a year of trying to survive in this pandemic.
I wonder if you can relate. Has a year of life in a pandemic left you numb? Bewildered? Grieving loss after loss? Maybe you have experienced the suffering or death of loved ones from COVID, or you have lost loved ones for other reasons, and have been unable to gather with your family or friends to share hugs, memories, and the burden of sorrow.
Perhaps you have watched with agony while those you love languish with mental or emotional anguish and you feel helpless to alleviate their suffering. Maybe your own health has deteriorated; or economic insecurity looms. Your coping mechanisms are being taxed from all sides. So, when another story of a mass shooting, racist oppression, infighting in our government, climate change related disaster, a new record high number of unaccompanied refugee children hits the news, you feel numb to all that bitter, that your last palm branch is about to turn to ashes.
Fr. Richard Rohr writes:
The supreme irony of the whole crucifixion scene is this: He who was everything had everything taken away from him. He who was king of king and lord of lords was crowned with thorns. All of the humanity to which he was brother was taken away from him and he walked the journey alone – [his followers deserting him in their great fear of the unfolding events]. Jesus, the brother to creation, was nailed to the wood of the cross, his arms nailed open (Radical Grace, 139).
The irony of the Palm Sunday and Holy Week is depicted in the masterpiece by Italian artist Tintoretto in his painting of the crucifixion. An image of this is included in this week’s Touch Point, and also at www.knox.org/picture. Let’s look at it together.
Here is a depiction of the what occurred just days after Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city, straddling a donkey, palm branches waving all around. Notice the chaos. None of his followers remain, except for what may be his mother, shrouded in black, touching the wood of Jesus’ cross where his arms are nailed wide open, looking up into his eyes, grief stricken. Of to th far left and far right, Roman soldiers sit atop their white war horses, giving orders, keeping control. Two criminals, one to the left and one to the right of Jesus, are being tied to their own crosses and will soon join him on that Calvary hill. Pause for a moment to take all this in. What else do you notice? What do you feel as you gaze at this scene?
Now, take one more look, at the center of the scene, way in the back. There stands the most ironic image of all. The donkey that carried Jesus just four days prior is now straddled by the Empire – a roman soldier. And the palm branches from the parade, no longer waving in glory, now lay on the ground at the donkey’s feet, discarded by the crowd, being eaten by the donkey – a most bitter meal.
Fr. Rohr writes that the arms of Jesus, God’s eternal sign to us, were nailed open because he said in his life “three most dangerous words: ‘I love you.’ When you say ‘I love you,’ you give the other power over you. We humans are prone to hate what we should love. But God says, ‘I love you anyway!’” And for the whole world, this is God’s “great act of reconciliation…this is our hope” (Radical Grace).
After every Palm Sunday worship at Knox, we take the palm branches we waved and sometime between now and next year’s Lenten season, one of our Sunday school classes will burn these palms, turning them to ashes. Those ashes will be used on Ash Wednesday 2022 to make the sign of the cross on your foreheads or hands, once again reminding us of who we are. We are God’s beloved, fragile, broken, living in a broken world. We are God’s children whose hopes and dreams and lives at times turn to ash, and that after they do, we are still God’s beloved. Easter is coming soon, to remind us once again that out of the ashes God sprouts new palms. Out of the ashes God brings something glorious. Out of the ashes God brings life.