Today is Palm Sunday on the Christian liturgical calendar. It commemorates the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion. Palm Sunday is therefore always the Sunday preceding Good Friday, the days of Jesus's death.
Modern churches probably make a bigger deal of Palm Sunday than the early churches did. The Gospels don't emphasize the day very much, they just tell it almost in passing. The Gospel of Mark, generally acceded to be the first-written Gospel, is quite cursory about the day:
Mark 11:7-11:Here is the scene as depicted in the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth.
7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna!11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
The day was the first day of Passover Week. Passover was (and remains) the central commemoration of the liberation of the Children of Israel from centuries of chattel slavery in Egypt under the Pharaohs.
Jerusalem was an emotional place during Passover season. Jewish pilgrims from all over the country poured into the holy city to make their sacrifices at the Temple. There was enormous religious fervor in the city, so much that the Roman garrison there went on special alert since the Jews’ hatred of the Roman occupiers reached a fever pitch during Passover week.
We don’t know how many people greeted Jesus with palm fronds. Historians say there may have been as many as two hundred thousand people in the city on that day. It’s reasonable to think that this day’s crowd was large since the fact that Jesus attracted crowds was likely one reason the high council later had him arrested him at night, when everyone would be in bed.
The people waving palm fronds that day had a certain expectation of Jesus. Instead of entering triumphantly on a charging stallion, Jesus rode into town on a colt; other Gospels say a donkey. This was no act of humility on Jesus’s part. He was asserting kingly authority and messianic identity. Matthew’s account of the day refers to the prophecy of Zechariah that says that Jerusalem’s king would come “triumphant and victorious ... humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Mark, however, doesn’t make much of this. Neither, actually, does Mark say the crowd waved palm branches, but instead “leafy branches.” John’s Gospel says they waved palms, a practice the Jews of the day observed for a number of important celebrations. Even so, some of the crowd accompanying Jesus into Jerusalem shouted their excitement of his arrival:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!This is an overtly political acclamation. The crowd cheered Jesus from ignorance of who he really was and from their selfish ambition of what they wanted him to do. They hoped first that he would reclaim the throne of David - to which he was entitled - away from that apostate Herod. Then they hoped that Jesus, divinely assisted, would lead an uprising that would drive the Romans from Judea. Neither of these things were on Jesus’ mind. Jesus surely knew what the crowd expected and just as surely knew he was not their man, not like they wanted.
But we must not be too hard on those cheering Jerusalemites. We cannot blame them for wanting to be free of oppression. Nor should we scorn them for failing to imagine that Jesus was destined to be crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day to rise from the dead. No one imagined that before it happened. All the Palm Sunday people knew about Jesus was that he loved God, he spent a lot of time with the unlovable people of society, he was known to work miracles now and then, he was a compelling preacher and verbally fought with the powerful people of the Jewish nation.
There really was not much more to know about Jesus, five days before he was executed as a religious heretic and political insurrectionist. Everything of how Christians know Jesus as the Christ springs from Easter, not Palm Sunday. It is Easter, not Palm Sunday, that defines our faith. Unlike the crowd calling Hosanna! two thousand years ago, we know Jesus as the Risen One, the King of Kings whose throne is infinitely more glorious than that occupied by David or his descendants.
That being so, why on earth should we celebrate that crowd of two millennia ago and imitate them by waving palm branches during Palm Sunday services? Perhaps we should do so to remind ourselves that all earthly glory is fleeting. Acclaim does not last forever, often not even for a few days. Disappointments or worse always follow from staking one’s well being on any ordinary person.
The ugliness of fickle faith will never be more nakedly displayed than during Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem. The crowd will turn on him and call for his destruction. Having molded his reputation to fit their own desires, when they discover Jesus doesn’t fit their mold, the townspeople cheering Jesus’ entry into the city, waving palm branches, will turn on him with fury. They will call for his death only a few days later, yelling to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!” and “Give us Barabbas!” (an insurgent) instead of Jesus. Then finally, they will scream, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
If we are to commemorate that crowd, it can be only to admonish ourselves not to be like them. In this election year, Palm Sunday drives home that we must not stake our lives on mere human aspirations and merely human leaders. It is to remind ourselves to be steadfast in faith, not fickle.
It must be to ask ourselves, even if only once per year, “What do we expect from Jesus?” Is it sensible that we should expect Jesus to give us more of what we already have? Was the mission of Jesus Christ simply to assure us that he’s okay, we’re okay, just keep doing what we’re doing, living like we’re living, wanting what we’re wanting, and somehow everything will work out all right? Or should we imagine that the Son of God has a different agenda than we do, and his agenda might topple our own as certainly as the ancient temple in Jerusalem came tumbling down forty years after Jesus entered the city?
These are questions to ponder this Holy Week. The answers are not found on Palm Sunday. For that Christians must push through to Easter.