What happened on Palm Sunday?

March 22nd, 2015

What sort of day is Palm Sunday?

What was it they saw in that figure riding up to the grand mount of the Temple on a working beast? Was his entry into Jerusalem a triumphant procession? An act of political rebellion? A forgettable sideshow among the multitudes who made their way to the city for the week of Passover?

Palm Sunday, which looks back to that scene, is a significant liturgical observance for Christian churches, but what is its significance? If it’s a celebration, it’s conducted in a minor key because it stands at the beginning of the drama and suffering of Holy Week. And those palm leaves and fronds and branches that we wave as we sing and shout “Hosanna!” — for whom are we waving them?

Journey’s end

One last time, Jesus turns to the band of followers who had been with him from Galilee and tells them what to expect when they arrive in Jerusalem: arrest, sentencing, torture, death and at the end a surprising resurrection. The response of the disciples is unrecorded, but the next thing they ask reveals a shocking lack of comprehension, at least to us who live on this side of the Crucifixion. “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left,” James and John ask, “when you enter your glory” (Mark 10:37).

It has been this way for a while. No one can get their minds around what Jesus’ glory will look like or what the substance of his kingdom will be. So Jesus offers up another lesson on the importance of humility and service as an alternative to their misconceptions of greatness.

Then, as if to emphasize the inability of his closest followers to see what’s really going on, Jesus does one last miracle before heading up to Jerusalem. He heals a blind beggar named Bartimaeus whose only request is to see and to receive mercy at the hands of the one he calls “Son of David,” a messianic title (Mark 10:46-52). It only takes a word from Jesus, and the man whom the crowd had tried to shush walks away with his faith affirmed and his sight restored.

A humble entry

If Jesus is the one to restore King David’s throne, he chooses a strange mode of entry into the capital city. On a horse, he might be seen above the crowds. But there is no horse and no chariot  only a borrowed beast of burden that had never been broken. 

Of course, discerning eyes might have seen this as a fulfillment of royal prophecy. Zechariah speaks of a king coming to Jerusalem “humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). There is also the direction of approach. The Mount of Olives, just to the east of the Temple, is no ordinary hill. The book bearing Zechariah’s name concludes with a grand vision of Israel’s salvation coming from the same mountain with all sorts of earthshaking events (Chapter 14).

But you need eyes to see those things; and if you don’t, you just see a man with his band of starstruck stragglers working his way to the city gates. If it’s a triumph, it’s not enough of one to overwhelm the city. As Francis Spufford describes the scene in his recent book, “Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense,” “the details are off-script somehow, from the donkey, to the way that only some of the friends seem to be shouting the slogans you’d expect, to the way that the man himself doesn’t have his face set in the shining megawatt mask of charisma.” But he is clearly headed to the Temple, and that in itself has implications.

The politics of the temple

“Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem is an unmistakable political act,” notes theologian Stanley Hauerwas. “He has come to be acknowledged as king.” And though it seems foreign to people living with a notion of separation of church and state, “his going to the temple is perhaps even more significant than his triumphant entry.”

Jesus doesn’t go to confront the titular “powers that be.” He goes instead to the Temple to look it over and then returns the next day, in Mark’s account, to cleanse it of those things that keep it from being “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). It’s this act that stirs the religious leaders to seek his death. Jesus has confronted them because “without true worship of God, there is no way to know what a true politics might be,” according to Hauerwas. Jesus is reclaiming the people’s identity, an identity that is determined by their connection to Israel’s God rather than to any other authority.

A Roman interest

The powers that be are interested, however. From the high tower of the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple plaza, Roman soldiers cast a wary eye on the procession. The Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, was in town, up from the coastal city of Caesarea to supervise the Passover pilgrims in their multitudes.

It wasn’t the pretensions of religious teachers and zealots that concerned them; the Romans were relatively tolerant in that regard. It was the instability of the Jewish population that they feared, seemingly sparked by, as historian Justo González notes, “the least challenge to their faith.” In Jesus’ childhood, one of these periodic revolts led to the crucifixion of 2,000 Jews in Galilee. Some 35 years after his death, the whole Temple complex would be destroyed, and many more would die as the Romans crushed a major rebellion.

So they are watching Jesus’ entry and wondering what to make of it as well. How much of a disturbance will Jesus cause? How much will the Romans be asked to do by their Jewish puppet king, Herod Antipas, in whose citadel Pilate is encamped? How much violent display will be required?

From the streets

Then there are the people in the streets, two and a half million of them, according to the estimate of the classical historian Josephus. From all over the known world, Jews had returned for the Passover celebration. Along with the people, there were tens of thousands of sheep awaiting the ritual sacrifice. The city couldn’t hold them all, and so many stayed outside the gates, in villages like Bethany where Jesus and the disciples lodged. As Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of “Jerusalem: The Biography,” describes it, pilgrims jammed the ritual baths, and the “smell of burning meat and heady incense wafted — and the trumpet blasts, announcing prayers and sacrifices, ricocheted — across the city.”

What hopes and fears did Jesus inspire in the people as he entered the city that day? All sorts of expectations swirled around him. He was a teacher, a healer, a prophet, a rabbi and a challenger of the establishment. But some of them also recognized him as the fulfillment of the hopes for a new king, and so old royal praises found voice on their lips: “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9).

Speaking of Jesus

Perhaps we think we know how to speak of Jesus now, after the events of that week all played out. We know now, better than those who watched him that day, who he is and what his kingdom looks like. We assume this.

It’s very easy for us to cast Jesus into a role of our choosing, however. We still would like to see him come to champion our hopes and expectations and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies. Jesus leads us to the Temple, though, and points us to a God who upends all our notions of power and rule. Jesus’ kingdom operates with different priorities and to a different end. He is there among the people, teaching his followers the way of humility, offering sight to the blind, overturning tables, and removing every obstacle that would keep us from the living God. And if you can see the King in these actions, Palm Sunday has come.


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