Sunday, March 25 was our last Lenten Sunday, which is celebrated as Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It kicks off our Holy Week, which culminates in the holiest of days, Resurrection Sunday (Easter — it’s really called Resurrection Sunday).
Since I’ve been serving in a pulpit, I have chosen instead to lead the congregation through what has been called Palm/Passion Sunday, as the Passion Narrative has traditionally only been read at Holy Week services and in our over-scheduled, busy culture, not many people make time for Holy Week services. So even those who come every Sunday of the year would never hear the Passion Narrative if they missed Holy Week.
Our service Sunday began with a short lesson for our children about parades, specifically the ones happening in Jerusalem. Here I quote from some excellent scholarship that explains it much better:
Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30 … One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class …
On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’s procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’s crucifixion.
Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology … it was the standard practice of the Roman governors of Judea to be in Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals … to be in the city in case there was trouble … The mission of the troops with Pilate was to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia, overlooking the Jewish Temple and its courts …
Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful. Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God … For Rome’s Jewish subjects, Pilate’s procession embodied not only a rival social order, but also a rival theology.
We return to the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem … As Mark tells the story in 11:1-11, it is a prearranged ‘counterprocession’ … The meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion), ‘humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (9:9). In Mark, the reference to Zechariah is implicit. Matthew, when he treats Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, makes the connection explicit by quoting the passage: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion: look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Matt. 21:5, quoting Zech. 9:9). The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be: ‘He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations’ (9:10). The king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war-horses or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be a king of peace.
Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast—between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Cæsar—is central not only to the gospel of Mark, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity. The confrontation between these two kingdoms continues through the last week of Jesus’s life … Holy Week is the story of this confrontation” (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, pp. 2-5).
The whole church proceeded with palms, shouting “Hosanna!” About halfway through the parade I invited a five year old to lead the procession and without hesitation, she stepped right to the front of the line and fearlessly marched onward.
Our attention then turned to a reading of the Passion narrative from Matthew interspersed with sacred hymns of the season. I invited the congregation to participate in the story this year rather than just observe, and challenged each one to consider where they are on the spectrum between “Hosanna” and “Crucify!” All of us want to hurry up and get to the “Alleluia!” but we must take our time through this, stopping to consider where we are along the way towards the cross.
Even as we asked “What Wondrous Love is This?” we paused to think about our Lenten Cup. In our scripture reading, Jesus had just prayed all night long in the garden of Gethsemane:
In his very human prayer he beseeched, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus knew this cup was a cup of suffering. He had even suggested to the mother of the sons of Zebedee that her sons were not prepared to drink from his cup.
Then in his very Divine prayer acquiesced, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
And of course we know that Jesus, in his Divinity, willingly drank from that cup, sealing our reconciliation with God once and for all.
What is the cup of suffering that has been given to you? Is it something for which you constantly pray, “O Lord, let this cup pass from me?” Is it physical or mental illness? An ailing family member? Neighbors that you just cannot get along with? A child with whom you constantly disagree? What is in that cup for you?
Because I have good news: no matter what the cup is, or whether you perceive that you can or cannot drink from it, God will be with you. God is with you. So even when we fail as the disciples did (by falling asleep when Jesus merely wanted their prayers and presence; by choosing aggression in the garden when Peter cut off the ear of the centurion; by abandoning Jesus during the trial and crucifixion), God will still be with us. There is no cup too bitter or too full of sorrow that God cannot share with us.
Do you know where you are on that spectrum from Hosanna (“save us”) to Crucify? As we continue to move through Holy Week, please continue to ask yourself that question. Having your palm from Sunday hanging in your home can be a visual cue to be mindful that Holy Week happens perpetually in our faith. We are always a people who shout “Hosanna” in our desperation, or when it is convenient, or part of what the crowd is doing; and constantly poised to be a people who shout “Crucify” when we aren’t willing to risk anything for our faith, or when being a Christian is inconvenient, or when the rest of the crowd is denying Christ as well.
Most congregants chose to leave their palms at church on Sunday. I’ve saved them, as I do each year, because our Palms from Palm Sunday become next year’s ashes for Ash Wednesday. Please drop by the church and pick up a palm to hang in your home somewhere as a reminder of our fickle nature, as a reminder to consider if you’re living in the Hosanna or the Crucify. Then next year on Ash Wednesday you can burn your own palm or bring it to the church to be turned into ashes for our Ash Wednesday service. Here’s an article with other thoughts about what you can do with your palms.
Take comfort, people.
We’ll be taking our faith wide after Easter. . .