Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots
I have fond memories of Palm Sunday growing up, largely because of the fun my brother, our friends, and I would have with the single fronds we received. It was our great (and sacred?) ritual after worship to sit across from each other and stick the fronds into each other’s noses. The winner was the one who could withstand the invasion the longest, an invasion that was at once painful, ticklish, and hilarious. For one or all of these reasons, there were always some tears streaming. Perhaps I should stop using the past tense, though, as I am sure there will be more Palm Sundays like this in the future.
As I experienced Palm Sunday in Zambia yesterday, I realized that it was not our masochistic game that was ridiculous. Instead, the ridiculousness lay in the fact that our Palm Sunday celebration consisted of each person receiving a single palm frond at the door and then simply carrying it to the pew to be held throughout the service. A single frond. Quietly sitting in pews. No fanfare.
Contrast this with my experience yesterday. All the churches that I knew of gathered sometime between 7 and 8 in the morning some distance from the church buildings. Some congregations were alone and some were big, ecumenical crowds. Children, women, and men carried actual palm branches with many fronds. Marching bands blasted brass- and drum-filled music. Everybody shouted, “HOSANNA HOSANNA HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST! BLESSED IS THE ONE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD! HOSANNA HOSANNA HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST!” With palm branches waving in the air, triumphal music blaring, and voices shouting, the multitudes marched to their various buildings, proudly proclaiming their messiah to everyone in town.
Obviously this scene does not match the biblical tradition exactly. According to Matthew and Mark, the palm branches were laid on the ground along with cloaks to create a carpet for the donkey upon which Jesus rode. In this case the branches were not being waved in the air.
The rest, though, is remarkably accurate…even to the point of enlightening me on a detail I have always overlooked. You see, for some reason I have always pictured the people standing by the roadside and laying down their clothes and branches, shouting and cheering as Jesus rode by. In reality, the crowds went ahead of him and followed him, shouting. Jesus was in the midst of a giant parade. And, as Matthew tells us, “When he entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil” (21:10). This was a loud, disruptive multitude of people marching with “the one who came in the name of the Lord.”
Of course the story of Palm Sunday is more complicated than the scene of people welcoming and parading with Jesus. For, within a matter of days many of these same people would condemn him to death. Some might even believe that the people were knowingly deceiving him with this welcome.
Again, though, the story is more complicated. It was the Temple leaders, not the common people, who led the charge against Jesus. The sadducees were in direct cahoots with the Roman empire and had power because of this relationship. Jesus was threatening the stability of their religious hierarchy as well as the political positions. Jesus was thus threatening the very stability of Rome. Perhaps it was the same people who shouted Hosanna and then shouted for his death. This does not, however, negate their joyous celebration welcoming their messiah. I believe that the people sincerely found hope in this man who would heal the sick, focus on the poor, and spend time with sex workers. I also believe that what comes next is one of the best examples in history of how leaders with power and privilege use demagoguery and deception to turn people under the yoke of oppression against each other.
I had the honor of witnessing the sincere, hopeful parade of people welcoming their messiah yesterday. They didn’t march as a mockery or in ignorance of Good Friday. They marched, as they do every year, because they know that even if their voices would have joined those of the crowd at the court of Pontius Pilate, Jesus conquered death and the systems of death. They know that in rising up Jesus declared that he could not be defeated by the machinations of powerful, privileged oppressors. They know that Jesus accepts the change of heart that would turn the crowd at the court of Pontius Pilate back into the crowd that joined him with shouts of acclamation on his way to flip the tables at the Temple.