Don’t lay those palms down so quickly! I contend that we should let Palm Sunday be Palm Sunday.
Yes, it is the starting point for Holy Week, our entry into the centerpiece of our sacred story. But I would argue that it has not gotten the full attention it deserves by calling it both Palm Sunday AND the Sunday of the Passion. We’ve smushed together two days, so we have to fit a lot of stuff into one worship service. We start off waving palms, processing around the neighborhood or around the church. But before you know it, our mood of exuberant welcome is restrained by the reading of the story of the suffering and death of Jesus.
One rationale I’ve often heard is that, because these days so few people attend Holy Week services, they miss out on the hard parts of the story. Easter cannot be understood without the cross. And as a parish pastor, I can see that point – have seen it for many years and complied with the accepted wisdom.
But another rationale I’ve often heard and read in countless commentaries is the assumption that wanting to stay with Palm Sunday is a desire to avoid the pain of Holy Week, to stay on the high of ‘Hosanna!’ and sail right on to the ‘Alleluia!’ of Easter. But I say that assumption is wrong. And I’ve come to the conclusion that letting Palm Sunday be Palm Sunday is important to our understanding of who Jesus was, what he was doing, and what he was saying – both in words and in symbolic actions. There is so much going on in the Palm Sunday story! We should be able to take our time, delve into the symbolism, the implications of this bizarre parade for the people who were there – and for ourselves, participating in it across time.
I would contend that wanting to leave Palm Sunday and move directly into the Passion story is a desire to avoid the political and religious satire that Jesus engaged in. He was pushing the limits of all the authorities in this audacious bit of street theater. Knowing full well (or fool well on April 1!) the consequences of his action, Jesus went on – not to a pre-ordained and God-orchestrated death, but to its logical outcome.
In this scene, instead of focusing on the crowd’s fickleness, we should set our sights on Jesus and how far he would go to bring his message of God’s reign of peace into a hurting world. From there we move solemnly into Holy Week. There is no denial of what is to come. We take our palm branches home and put them behind a picture on the wall as a reminder that next year’s ashes for Ash Wednesday will be made from fronds such as these. The great circle comes around again.
So, again I say: Let Palm Sunday be Palm Sunday. Wave those branches. Shout ‘Hosanna!’ Be with Jesus in each moment, including this one. And, of course, go to Holy Week services. You are part of the story – the whole story. Hosanna!