Palm Sunday: Triumph, Prophecy and Tragedy

Much of the Christian world observed Palm Sunday yesterday, which involved reenacting the emotionally wrenching Passion story, which outlines the events leading to Jesus’  crucifixion.  There are several parts to the story.  The first is the triumphal entry:  Jesus is welcomed into the city of Jerusalem;  palms are strewn and hosannas are declared.  They carry with them a high level of hope and expectation — that Jesus would come into the city, the Roman oppressors would be thrown out, and David’s royal line would be reestablished.

The third part of the story begins with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood ashe prepares for his death.  This is followed by his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The transition from the first part to the third part leaves people – or it least has left me, with emotional and spiritual whiplash. How did we get from triumph to tragedy so quickly?

There is a second part of the story, not told in the Passion narrative, but needs to be addressed to fully understand how various dynamics were being played out.  After entering the city, Jesus hung around, which was unusual.  Would be messiahs were a dime a dozen every year at Passover.  The Roman and religious authorities were normally prepared for it.  Someone would ride in, get their fifteen minutes of fame, and then would be seized and roughed up a bit – and thrown  out of the city or into prison, with the admonishment not to do it again.  And that would be that.

But Jesus didn’t just hang around.  He went to the temple to teach, and when he saw corruption, he turned over the tables of the money changers.  His was a public act, which now meant that the authorities couldn’t just quietly usher him out of town.  They needed to do something just as public.  So they staged a sham trial, and a cruel crucifixion.

We aren’t the only ones to experience emotional whiplash in the story.  Those who were present that week experienced it as well.  The same crowd who cheered Jesus into the city were the ones who called for his head when he appeared before Pilate.  “Crucify him”, the demanded.  Because he didn’t deliver on their outsized expectations.

Crowds can be like that.  And we can as well – especially when have tables turned over, leaving us disoriented, confused and angry.  And especially when our expectations are not met.  Tables are turning over in our world faster than we can put them back up again:  there’s climate crisis, covid, Ukraine, polarization, more stockpiling of guns and shootings and suicides.  And that is just the list we have in common.  We each have our own overturned table stories of loss and disappointment and unrealized expectations.

And there are forces and voices all around telling us to be angry, to curse at the crusaders –those who are not living up to our expectations, or are threatening to dismiss our expectations.

Jesus wasn’t swayed by the adulation, nor was he cowed by Pilate.  He held to his commitment, and faithfully lived out the story – all of which he predicted.

It is an ugly story; a scary story.  For the authorities and for the crowd the story was about winning and losing, which often turns ugly.    Theirs was a zero-sum game, which is how much of the way the world works – and has worked.

And Jesus wouldn’t have it.  He gave up his life. He faced violence with love.  He had what it takes to lose – so that everybody could eventually win new life.  As Jesus is reported to have said earlier, “anyone who saves his life will lose it; and anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it. “  (Matthew 16:25)  He is out to win new life – not just for some, but for everyone.   It is necessary to give up some comfort, certainty and protection – which are really an illusion, because they are not abiding, and are often arrived at at someone else’s expense.

To give them up for true freedom, deeper faith and honest vulnerability, which can open us up to the glory of abundant life.

It is a hard road of losing to get there.  But that is the path Jesus took.  And invites others to follow.



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