But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself”?’
This Sunday, we'll shout “Hosanna!” and wave the palm branches to welcome Jesus into our midst. On Thursday I'll wash the feet of a first-time communicant just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Then we'll share the meal and conclude the service with the solemn stripping of all decoration from the worship space in mournful recognition of Christ's betrayal, arrest, brutalization, and humiliation. We leave the worship space in sad silence, only to return the following night to hear the story of Jesus' trial and crucifixion.
In the ancient Tenebrae ritual, the church is slowly darkened as the story unfolds. There will be no sermon, no communion, not even an offering will be received. The chancel will be draped in black. The cross will be carried in doleful procession. The seven candles, representing the seven times Our Lord spoke from the cross, will be extinguished. We will be left in darkness.
Last year, one of the beautiful teenagers who sings in our Praise Team remarked, “You know, Pastor, Easter seems so much more special to me now that I go through the services of Holy Week.”
Oh, praise God, I thought. That's the point. I can die content now.
But what about this day called Palm Sunday? What's the significance? A lot has been written recently about the last week of Jesus' earthly ministry. A bestselling book called Zealot by Reza Aslan claims that Jesus was a member of the Zealot sect, a group of radical Jews who believed religious purity could only be obtained once Israel was free from the taint of Roman occupation. Aslan suggests that Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was a sort of Bay of Pigs misadventure—one intended to spark a popular uprising against the invaders but ending in tragic failure.
Another new book, How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman takes the view that Jesus was really more like an Essene, a very pious sect which believed God was in the process of overthrowing Rome without violent earthly opposition, and that Jesus would be crowned king of Israel once this apocalyptic overthrow took place.
Personally, I don't think Jesus was either Zealot or Essene. I think Jesus was Jesus. He came to the Holy City to preach God's righteousness. He came mounted on a baby donkey, a ridiculously humble, non-violent figure. He overturned the money-changers' tables in the temple (Matt. 21:12-13) because the money-changers were oppressing the poor and corrupting worship. But he didn't stop with a single act of protest. He went on to welcome into that sacred space the people the temple had always excluded—the blind and the lame—and he cured them (v. 14). Basically, he came to Jerusalem to speak out against injustice and perform deeds of mercy and compassion. Simple, right?
The little kids got this (v. 15). Children understand kindness. Do nice things for people, don't cheat or hurt them.
It was only the adults who were too enmeshed in their own games of power and rationalization to see the righteousness of God in Jesus of Nazareth. So they had to put him to death.
And he went to that death willingly.
For me, I've always seen in Palm Sunday the basic tragedy of being human: the fact that all of us on this broken rock we call the world are heirs to disappointment and pain. How often do we find ourselves asking how things which began with so much promise—a relationship, a career, a political administration, a life—can end with so much heartache? How can there be so much joy on Sunday and so much pain on Friday?
But—spoiler alert here—we do know the end of the story. And it wasn't on Friday. So wave those palms with gladness and hope. Cheer the one who has come, who has entered into our mess and struggle and, through his own odyssy reminds us that we will never fall so far as to be out of his reach.
Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Thanks for reading, my friends. May you all have a meaningful Holy Week.
PS-Still not too late to sign my letter to Pope Francis asking that Lutherans and Catholics share communion together again. If you belong to one of these two churches, why not give it a shot? Can't do any harm, can it? Just click here.