Listen to the rustle of the palms. It comes like a rustle, this knowing. It comes like a whisper from deep inside you. Can you hear it? It says: This is my truth. This is who I am. I. am. undeniable.
So here we are at the beginning of Holy Week, and these forty days of Lent are almost up. How are your Lenten practices coming? Has anyone eaten chocolate yet who wasn’t supposed to?
But seriously, today is the day that we enter into what is the holiest week of the year in the Christian calendar, where together we ritualize and make meaning of the final days of Jesus’ life – and his death.
If we take it seriously, this is a really challenging week. We see the betrayal of a friend. We witness a final meal. We hear the grief at Gethsemane. We see a man hung from a tree. So doesn’t it strike you as strange that before Lent is even over, that just as Jesus is entering the city Jerusalem in which we all know he is going to die a miserable, political, friendless, powerless death, we’re joyfully waving about our beautiful palm fronds, as if they are wings about to bear us up in flight? Palm Sunday has become, in the mainline Protestant church, something like a mini-Easter. If we were to take Holy Week just Sunday to Sunday – and skip the stuff in between – one might miss the part about death altogether, what I would argue is the most important part.
Palm Sunday is no celebration! Instead, this procession of the Palms should strike a profoundly ironic chord from deep within us. Because each of us knows this truth: the height of Palm Sunday is temporary. Each step taken toward Jerusalem is another step toward Jesus’ death – just as each breath we take in this life is one breath less that we’ll have in this life.
So let’s get a little closer today to the story of Palm Sunday – because the historical rendering of what might have actually happened is just a little different than how most mainline Protestant congregations observe the day.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg outline Jesus’ final days in their 2006 book The Last Week – which I know a group in this congregation read together recently. In it, they describe not one but two processions into the city of Jerusalem: this procession, which we know well—the palm branches and cloaks strewn on the ground before Jesus; the humble donkey he rode into the city; the shouted Hosanna!s ringing through the air. But they also describe a second procession.
The second procession would have been Pontius Pilate, who was not only the Roman governor of Judea, but also Idumea and Samaria, and so he didn’t live in Jerusalem year-round. Instead, he came to Jerusalem – the capitol of Israel – now and again, and especially during times when it would be expected that there might be an insurgency.
Such as the Jewish high holidays. Like Passover. Which, in case you didn’t know, begins tomorrow, and always overlaps with Holy Week.
Pilate’s procession would have had a very different feel to it than that of Jesus. It would have been populated with soldiers, horses, chariots; the smell of leather, and the clanking of metal. It was a procession intended to impress upon the Israelites the power of Rome. And, Crossan and Borg claim, it was just this procession that Jesus would have been referencing. In fact, they argue, Jesus’ humble procession into the city may have been something quite intentional, even a planned political demonstration against the empire of Rome.
No wonder Jerusalem was in turmoil when Jesus entered the city. That was the plan all along. It’s hard to say whether Jesus would really have known that this procession was a long march toward his death. Of course he knew his actions were terribly dangerous. That to march into Jerusalem on the eve of Passover was to step into the hornet’s nest. That his teachings were oppositional to Rome. That all along his ministry, his words of love and justice, were disturbing the fragile balance of power in the region. And the crowd that followed him likely knew it, too. We envision Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession as something like a parade, but it was truly more like a throng of people just ringing with desperation. Hosanna! The people cried. Save us! Save us from this power being imposed on us! Save us from the empty taxes that strip us of a living wage; save us from the crucifixions that stretch as far as the eye can see! Hosanna!
What must have been going through Jesus’ mind as he made his way toward Jerusalem? What did he make of the danger he was putting himself into – himself, his friends, his family? Was he afraid? Courageous? Prideful? Uncertain? We can’t know for sure. But we do know this. Jesus didn’t know what would happen. But we do.
Jesus died. And then, HE CAME BACK TO LIFE. It merits repeating. He. Came. Back. To. Life.
Now, let us release ourselves of the intellectual, historical-critical analysis I know that each of us are performing in our minds about whether or not Jesus was really, truly, physically resurrected 2,000 years ago. The historicity isn’t the point. The truth is in the story. And the story is this: on the other side of death is life. And it can be yours, too. All you need to do is walk to Jerusalem.
You see, We. Hide. Pain. We hide it from each other, we hide it from our own selves. We tell ourselves lies to avoid it, we cover it up with clowns, closets, masks, and magicians – they all cover up the truth, but the truth is this: without death, we cannot know life.
Our task today, on Palm Sunday, is to turn toward death. To walk toward the Cross.
Holy Week at its core is about how we humans make sense of death. Not just our mortality – although that is a big part of it – but also the small deaths that we experience throughout this life. The loss of control over one’s body and mind one feels in aging. A denial of our sense of self by the presiding powers that be. The loss of a job. Even the birth of a child! Anything that radically shifts our world and our sense of who we are is a small death. Its markings are pain and fear. But it is also an opportunity for resurrection.
There is a moment – a turning point – in which we make the decision to be who we are, to embrace the life we have, to choose resurrection. Addicts often talk about hitting “rock bottom” – this is what I’m talking about. It is a moment of awakening, a moment of decision-making, a moment of no return. In this Jesus story, I believe that moment is his march to Jerusalem. No turning back now. But I believe there are moments like this scattered all throughout history, scattered throughout all of our lives.
The moment Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, allowing him to be elected President of South Africa four years later. The Freedom Riders’ course across southern America in 1961, bringing awareness to the public of the vitriol present in our nation’s laws and culture. Gandhi’s salt march in 1930, which protested the British monopoly on salt in India, triggering a movement of civil disobedience and calling into question the legitimacy of British rule over India.
Notice that these are not necessarily moments of peace – in fact, they rarely are. Instead, they are moments of great turning, when we humans set aside our fear, turn toward our pain, and walk into the unknown. When who we are becomes undeniable, that is the moment we turn toward the Cross – and it is our first step toward resurrection.
It is the moment when you decide to get clean. The moment you decide to speak out. The moment when you decide to come out. It is the moment you know the treatments aren’t working. The moment you recognize your grief for what it is. The moment you grasp your mortality. It is the moment you become conscious of your privilege. The moment you know what you are capable of. The moment you know you won’t just stand by. THIS is the march to Jerusalem! And there’s no turning back now.
Do you hear it? Do you hear your truth rustling within you?
Do you hear the whispers telling you to be who you really are, to turn toward your most authentic self? Today, this moment, this Palm Sunday, this is what it’s about. This is when we begin the march toward the deep. This is when we walk with Jesus toward who we are. We bury the seed. We rustle the fronds. We move our feet. And we trust that life will come again. And in the deepest fears of the night, dawn breaks.
There’s no turning back now. Take the first step. Listen.