Liturgy of the Palms:
Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Liturgy of the Word:
Isa 50:4-9a; Ps 31:9-1; Phil 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
I have a friend whose favorite Sunday is Palm Sunday, who experiences on this threshold of Easter the whole story of salvation rolled into one service. I must confess, on the other hand, that I often feel overwhelmed by Palm Sunday, liturgically and theologically. Perhaps I prefer Sundays with one main point, one obvious emotion: Pentecost, for example. Is Palm Sunday primarily a day of triumph and celebration, of children marching down the aisle waving palm branches, of shouts of praise lest the rocks cry out in our place? Or is it primarily a day of preparation, a somber recognition of the necessity of the coming passion, the gathering storm of the crucifixion, a rehearsal of the entire passion in nuce?
The appointed texts for the day neatly highlight the tension: the Liturgy of the Palms offers the triumphal entry texts, and the Liturgy of the Word pairs texts about suffering (Isaiah) and self-emptying (Philippians) with the full text of the passion narrative, from the Last Supper to the placing of Jesus’ body in the tomb, anticipating the holy days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. So, which is it? Is it Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday?
After reading and reflecting on these texts for several days, and savoring their richness, I am not sure if Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday are two different things after all. In the Gospels, the responses to Jesus’ remarkable entry into Jerusalem foreshadow the events to come. In Matthew’s account, the whole city is thrown into turmoil. In Luke, the Pharisees tell Jesus to stop his disciples from shouting lines from Psalm 118 as Jesus enters the city. Also in Luke, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, still accompanied by crowds and waving palm branches, he weeps over the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The disciples who have shouted Hosannas will very soon betray, deny, and desert Jesus, fleeing in pain and fear.
One more detail from the triumphal entry links Jesus’ entrance into the city with his coming suffering. All four Gospels report that Jesus enters the city riding on a humble creature – a donkey. Matthew and John make sure that we know why Jesus chose this particular mode of transportation: in order to fulfill the words of Zechariah 9. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” In Zechariah 9, as in the Gospels, the king comes to Zion bringing peace. But this peace is bought at great cost, at an unimaginable price: the death of the king, the death of God’s beloved only Son. Jesus’ entry into the city is a triumphal entry, but not at all in the way anyone thought it would be – not the disciples, not the Pharisees, not the crowds of festival pilgrims. If the disciples could have seen what Jesus knew, they might have paused and wept at the gate of the city, too. It’s an ironically, proleptically triumphant entry, a kenotic entry, the moment at which Jesus puts his foot onto the inevitable path of the passion and never turns back.
On Palm Sunday, we can only wave the palms and shout our Hosannas if we remember that it’s also Passion Sunday, if we remember why Jesus has come to Jerusalem. Jesus does not enter the city to be hailed as a king. He enters the city to die.
Hosannas dying on our lips, the resounding thud of the stone rolling across the face of the tomb echoing in the silence, Palm Sunday – Passion Sunday – leaves us waiting, in trembling and hope, for Easter.