(Year B, Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018; Liturgy of the Palms Gospel Reading from Mark 11:1-11)
“And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” – Mark 11:9-10, ESV
Today is Palm Sunday, the day when the Church remembers the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when people lined the street to acclaim him as the coming King who would usher in the new Kingdom of David. It is also when the account of Jesus’ trial, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and death are told in the Gospel reading for the Eucharistic service. As my priest put it this morning, if this juxtaposition seems jarring, good – it’s supposed to.
One of the thematic features of the liturgy for Palm Sunday is the reinforcement of the fact that the same crowd that was moved to proclaim, “Hosanna in the highest!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem was equally stirred up to denounce him and call for his execution, shouting “Crucify him!” mere days later. I have been to congregations where the people play the part of the crowd in both Gospel readings and say “Hosanna” during the Liturgy of the Palms before the Processional, and also “Crucify him” in the Gospel during the Eucharistic Liturgy. This is done to drive home to everyone in the congregation that Jesus was the only person present at his condemnation who was innocent.
In my last posting, I mentioned my struggle against pride in reading the Gospels and supposing myself better than the disciples who totally missed the point in Jesus’ teaching. I used to struggle in a similar fashion when I read the accounts of Our Lord’s Passion, especially the crowd being stirred up against Jesus. All modern Christians want to say that they wouldn’t be part of the guilty ones who cried out “Crucify him!” but the Gospel account makes plain that everyone who wasn’t Begotten from the Father had an intimate hand to play in the condemnation and death of Jesus.
What are the alternatives to being in the crowd? There’s Pilate, aloof and disinterested in Jewish power struggles except for how it might impact his assignment to keep the peace in Judea, amazed in the enduring silence of Our Lord, but unwilling to make any move toward faith and truly speak out against the injustice. There’s the Jewish religious leaders, who bought off people to rouse the crowd and spread rumors and false testimony. There’s the soldiers, to whom Jesus was just another dirt-poor man from Galilee, another rebel who was shown to be nothing special.
Where are the disciples?
Peter is the last we see of any of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel by the time Jesus is condemned to death, and he denied any connection with Jesus, as had been foretold earlier in the day. The Gospels say that they all went into hiding, with only one being bold enough to come to the foot of the cross (St. John the Apostle). The people who are the least culpable are the guiltiest – Jesus had told them that these things would happen, and that he would be raised up and glorified, yet they didn’t believe him, and so they scattered as foretold in Zechariah 13:7.
As modern-day Christians, seeking to put ourselves in that first-century scene in Jerusalem, our choices are limited in terms of roles to play, and in truth not all Christians would be found in only one crowd. For myself, I believe that I would probably be with the disciples, cowering in a room waiting for the soldiers to drag us out to be flogged, humiliated, and, if we were lucky, stoned to death. Palm Sunday calls us to examine our hearts and see where we would be in the list of the guilty – because there is no option to stand on the sideline, and the one who was condemned and crucified was the only one innocent before the crowd.
Palm Sunday is the beginning of the observation of Holy Week in the Christian Church. If you can join a local congregation in the observation of the liturgies and rites this week, I strongly encourage you to do so. These are some of the heaviest and most powerful prayers and services of the Christian calendar. The Maundy Thursday liturgy is one of the oldest collection of prayers in the Christian tradition, and the Maundy Vigil calls you to join in the disciples’ difficulty of staying in prayer for “even one hour.” Good Friday is the soberest and most solemn service of the whole Church year, and confronts us with the cross of Christ, its scandal and our guilt. Finally, the Easter Vigil and Resurrection Sunday usher in the Great Feast of Easter, which brings us out of Lent and into the joyful celebration of the Risen Son.
This week, I pray that all Christians would be mindful of their sins and seek repentance for anything they are truly sorry for, and continually thank God for the mercy shown to us in the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.