I know that for many of us, this transition from Palms to Passion feels abrupt, and perhaps doesn’t even make sense. In fact, I’ve been reading a preacher’s blog this week that is “Against Passion Sunday.” In part, this is what was posted:
I am thinking of starting a campaign to bring back Palm Sunday, without the additional observance of Passion Sunday. Palm Sunday was always one of my favorites growing up as a preacher's kid, and it was all about the palms--and a lot of them. It was celebratory and festive when, as child, I got a chance for a hands-on worship experience and a glimpse of what royalty could look like.
So the argument goes…
Whether or not it has merit, it struck me how nostalgic the writer was for those festive and celebratory days when she was a child. Some of the comments in agreement with this post were a little self-righteous, I thought, particularly the person who wrote: “we do the Passion today because a majority of people are too lazy to come back on Friday, but they are not too busy to go out to Outback…” (Alright, so the internet may not be the place to have a serious theological conversation!)
I wasn’t privy to the liturgical discussions that the editors of The Book of Common Prayer had back in the mid-1970s when they recommended this change. Maybe they did say, “hey, we better squeeze the Passion in with Palm Sunday because everyone will be at Outback on Good Friday.” But I seriously doubt that. And regardless of whether they “caved in” or not to modern “realities” I think it would be a bad idea to go back to those “good old days”—for theological reasons. While it’s true that the move from Palms to Passion does feel abrupt, I think it has been made to feel more abrupt than it really is because we have misunderstood the little parade we just reenacted. In short, I don’t think it is supposed to be “merely festive and celebratory and a glimpse at royalty!” (If you want that, there is going to be a big wedding across the pond in two weeks to meet those needs!) So I want to try to say a word or two about what I see as a deeper political and theological connection between Palms and the Passion Narrative, a connection I think we do well to try to discern together if we mean to make sense of this holy week.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “who is this?” The crowds were saying, “this is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.” The whole city was in turmoil. In Greek, that word is the same one from which we get the English word “seismic.” Matthew suggests that the whole city was “shaking” – even trembling. Those are never words that mayors like to hear, whether we are talking about literal seismic shifts or the more metaphorical kinds.
Estimates of the population of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day run around 40,000. But on high holy days like Passover, as many as 200,000 pilgrims would travel to Jerusalem—five times the normal population. Think about cities when they host the Olympics or the Super Bowl and you begin to get some sense of the electricity, the buzz. But add to that the political context of Roman occupation. This isn’t a Thanksgiving Day parade; it’s a political rally. Think Tiennemann Square or Tahir Square or a million person march on The Mall in Washington and I think we get closer to the tensions that go to the heart of this day. Now add to that tinderbox the religious dimensions: the meaning of Passover itself and the messianic hopes of Second Temple Judaism and the yearning for a Son of King David to save Israel. Those cries of "hosanna" can not be separated from that social and political context.
In their book, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg imagine another parade across town: a display of Roman imperial power, as Pontius Pilate rides into the city with horse and chariot and shining armor and the brass bands playing John Philip Sousa marches. (Well, maybe not so much the Sousa!) That’s where the festive royal parade really is: a display of Roman imperial power, a flexing of political muscle. Because the Roman authorities are worried that a riot might break out as these pilgrims gather to remember that old, old story of the Exodus: a story about how the bonds of Pharaoh’s oppression were loosed and the captives went free. If people start to see the connection between Pharaoh and Caesar, they might start telling old Caesar to let God’s people go! Think of the little drama playing out in Libya these days and I think we get a better sense of what Jerusalem under Roman occupation may have felt as Jesus comes riding into town.
What is he doing exactly? Mocking? Counter-demonstrating? Singing “We Shall Overcome?” Reminding his people that Passover isn’t just a remembering of the past, but a challenge to all misuses of power and authority in every time and place? The whole city was seismic! And politicians—especially politicians whose authority is being questioned—worry about angry mobs. They tend to want to squelch angry mobs. They call it “keeping the peace,” but it’s really about keeping order and the powers-that-be often confuse the two.
Jesus comes to bring lasting peace with justice that exposes the Pax Romana for what it really is. During this Lenten season we’ve remembered people like Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who knew that, and lived that. Each of them discovered the costs of discipleship when they stood for the gospel and against the powers of this world.
But there is a temptation for Christians, particularly North American Christians, to turn this day into something that is merely individualistic and “spiritual” – something that has nothing to do with the worlds in which we live and move and have our being: to turn it into a nice “celebratory and festive parade.” But I think when we do that we distort its true meaning. Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem, I think, asking his disciples to look for and work towards the New Jerusalem. And quite frankly that scares those who have a stake in the status quo of the old Jerusalem. You and I are called, as present-day followers of this Jesus to look toward the new Washington, DC, the new Cairo, the new Bengazi, the new Worcester. And that may put us at odds with the dominant culture.
Last weekend I went to a Shabbat service at Temple Sinai, a going-away event for their rabbi, who is retiring after twenty-five years there. Included in the prayers was one that I want to close with today, from the Reform Jewish Prayerbook. It’s a prayer for Shabbat, but I think it also works as a prayer to carry with us into this Holy Week. Perhaps it even helps us to glimpse some connections between the Palms with the Passion, as Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem as King of kings and Lord of lords. As we shall see, it doesn’t take very long at all for the authorities to respond.
Let us pray:
DISTURB US, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency. Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans. Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred; Wake us O God, and shake us from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by half forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears; Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of Your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice and reality. Disturb us, O God, and vex us; let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.
Baruch atah, Adonai, m'kadeish Ha Shabbat