One of my favorite Sundays of the church year is Palm/Passion Sunday. I tend to like it because there is a delicious tension that tends to connect well with the ways in which most of us live our lives.
Most of you probably remember that as kids, this was just “Palm” Sunday. The shift happened some time ago, and whether it was for liturgical reasons, or because people were less likely to attend Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services, a change happened that led to Palm/Passion Sunday. For more on that, check out the article I linked in the meditation below. Now there is an emphasis not only on the palm parade and the children shouting Hosana, but also the march to Calvary and Christ’s suffering and death.
Let’s talk about why this is so important and why it is a good change. I know, many of you don’t like facing the dark and nasty stuff. I have heard the complaints before, “We go to church to escape from the dark nasty stuff. The world has enough of it and this is our safe haven.” I hear you. I understand where you are coming from. However, it is because church is your safe haven that we do need to talk about the dark stuff. I have always liked Mark Scandrette’s comparison of the church being like a dojo. It is the place where we go to practice our faith, so that when we face situations in the real world, our faith muscles are humming in tune ready to take on whatever comes our way. This is why we need to talk about the dark stuff too! We need the practice. We need to talk about darkness because the only way we really learn how to find hope is to journey into darkness and learn to find the light. That is why this strange dichotomy of Palm and Passion works so well. It is the strange tension that we live between the darkness we are so often surrounded by, and yet, the overwhelming hope that our faith instills in us.
I have been reading up on all of this a lot this week, and one interesting piece plays out. Take a second and go read Matthew’s version of the palm parade (Matthew 21:1-11). Notice anything strange there? Like the fact that Jesus is riding not one, but two animals? How does that work? Zorro style? Many commentators chalk this up to Matthew taking the prophecies of Zechariah to literally. I disagree. I think Matthew knew exactly what he was doing, and he liked the symbolism too much to miss the opportunity.
I highly doubt Jesus rode into Jerusalem Zorro style, but I think that the point Matthew was making was about what the two different animals symbolized. The Donkey was the animal of royalty for the Israelites. It goes back to Solomon electing to ride in on a donkey and not a warhorse to show his humility before God. It became a tradition, and Zechariah picks up on it to talk about the way in which the messiah will enter Jerusalem. Zechariah also mentions a colt. The Hebrew in Zechariah would seem to suggest that colt was also referring to the same donkey, but Matthew uses this as an opportunity. What do we know about colts—they are young and strong. They are work horses. They are beasts of burden. Matthew uses both to symbolize the complex dual nature of what is about to happen. Christ the King. Christ the servant unto death. Matthew is using this opportunity for some foreshadowing. Matthew is using these symbols to heighten the tension of what is happening at this moment in the life of Christ. The crowds shouting hosana were welcoming the victor. Little did they know what lay ahead in the days to come. It must have been a bittersweet moment for Jesus, enjoying the welcome of the crowds during the celebration, knowing that the parade route would end at Golgotha.
There is something to this kind of tension. I don’t know about you, but too often I find myself in places of tension not unlike this. Maybe it is as simple as that tv show you have been binge watching—so excited to see what happens, but don’t really want that final episode to come. Maybe it is as complex as the emotions that accompany this coming season of graduations—excited to see where our kids are headed, but knowing that all the options mean further away from us. Maybe it is as overwhelming as the emotions that accompany watching a loved one face a long illness—knowing that the last thing that you want is death, but also knowing the need for an end to suffering. Palm/Passion Sunday may be the best way we capture this kind of meaningful tension in the liturgical calendar.
So, if you are one of those that insists that church should just be about the warm fuzzies, let me convince you to spend some time practicing tension this week. Let this moment trouble you. See this moment for the rich complexity that it offers. Practice this time, so that the next time you face those bittersweet moments in life, your faith muscles are stretched and ready to go.