The Eternal Event of Palm Sunday
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
In our times, when we no longer have kings, it’s hard to understand the gravity of Palm Sunday. No doubt, most of us have grown up with this tradition, or at least some form of it. Everyone knows what Palm Sunday is. It’s that one day in the year when Christians meet at church and wave branches around. The service can become a little trite, cute even, when we see it as a mere occasion to make our kids happy or just that thing we do. Perhaps, we go a little deeper then this by listening to the gospel. Christ entered Jerusalem and the people greeted him with shouts of “Hosanna” while laying down branches at His feet. And so, Palm Sunday gives us the opportunity to remember one more historical event. But when this is all there is then we’ve lost the very soul of Palm Sunday.
There was nothing trite or cute about that day when Christ rode into Jerusalem. Historians tell us that in those times some 30 to 50 thousand people lived in the city. That number swelled to nearly 150 thousand at Passover, and so the homes and streets were overflowing with crowds. It’s hard to imagine the scene that Christ faced. In a negative context, you may have seen old newsreels of Germans chanting “Heil Hitler” – men, women, and children waving flags and pressing shoulder against shoulder to greet their emperor. You see this same enthusiasm today in many eastern cultures, where the whole city is expected to flood the streets to honor their hero. When King Solomon was crowned, we see a similar spirit, “All the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise” (I Kg. 1:40) In this way, on that first Palm Sunday at the gates of Jerusalem, the energy was electrifying and infectious. A whole nation gathered to celebrate the Coming of their King.
The palm branches we wave are more than a mere decoration or a trite tradition. They cut to the heart of what happened and what is happening.
In the minds of the ancient people, these branches symbolized the deepest hopes of humanity.
In the Book of Nehemiah, when Ezra presented the Torah to the people, he told them to proclaim it the world, saying, “Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees” (Neh. 8:15). There was nothing trite about that. King David prophecies in the psalter: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” (Ps. 118:20-27). King Solomon decorated the temple with the same thing in mind. “On the walls all around the temple, in both the inner and outer rooms,” we read, “he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers” (1 Kg. 6:29).
Some scholars suggest that these branches are an allusion to Eden, where God walked among the trees in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). We hail the King with branches, because His coming is a return to paradise. But we also see in scripture an apocalyptic meaning of our branches. In the Book of Revelation, St. John writes, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9). Palm Sunday links us with the past as well as the future. This holy day is an eternal event, intended to prepare our hearts for all that has come and all that will come.
We’ve just read, by far, the longest gospel reading in the entire year. You can tell that the people who assigned this reading were coming from a very different era. I think Christians in the past used to take religion a little more seriously. For us, today, it’s hard to sit still for such a long time. We like Sunday to be cozy and brief, so that we can get back to our football games and “more important” routines. But there’s a very important lesson here, in reading this today. Holy Week comes to us once a year and pulls us out of routines, it shakes us up a little, to remind us of what it is that Church is all about. Something important is happening here. God calls out to us trying to get our attention.
What is it that happened on that day when Christ rode into Jerusalem, and what is happening today when we process through the church and wave our branches?
A King has come.
Not King Solomon, not President Obama, not President Trump, not the supposed “social liberators” like Napoleon or Stalin, or even esteemed heroes of our times, like Clara Barton or Martin Luther King Jr.
And this is the point.
The world has produced all kinds of kings and heroes, for better or for worse. But the King who entered into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, was a King of a different sort.
The Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger writes,
“Jesus begins His reign upon the earth this very day; and though the first Israel is soon to [deny] His rule, a new Israel, formed from the faithful few of the old, shall rise up in every nation of the earth, and become the kingdom of Christ, a kingdom such as no mere earthly monarch ever coveted in his wildest fancies.”
However Pontius Pilate intended it, the words written on the cross were no jest. They spoke the radical Truth: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”
When Christ rode across those palm branches He came to claim His kingdom. His inauguration was on the Cross.
But at that moment, a schism took place between the kingdoms of men and the Kingdom of God.
Who was it that crucified Christ? It was the very same crowd that hailed him with palms. So long as the people assumed that Christ would be a “worldly” king, they loved him. They expected him to fit in their categories.
And so do we.
Today is no different. There’s no end of churches that are rewriting Christianity to make it fit whatever they want. You don’t like those old-fashioned morals? Then just scratch them off the list. You don’t like an idea of God being the great judge, because ‘judging isn’t nice’? Well turn Him into an old man sitting upstairs who just wants us all to have a grand time. The Orthodox Church looks strange to the modern world, because it’s the one Church that doesn’t blow in the wind and conform with whatever opinions are popular at the time or socially excepted. When Rome insisted that her patriarch be the Universal Primate, the Orthodox Church just scratched it’s chin and said, “We’ve been around since the 1st century and never had a pope, we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done.” When the protestant churches removed books from the bible and insisted on doctrines that no Christians had ever believed for the first 1500 years, the Orthodox again just kept doing what it had been doing. And so, today, we have to keep our eyes open and guard what’s been passed down to us. We don’t come to church to change it, we come to church to let it change us.
Our job is not to conform God to whatever image we’d like Him to be, but to conform our hearts to Him, so that when we see Him we will want Him.
The same goes for us as individuals. It’s one thing to wave these material branches and hail Christ as our King. The Jews also hailed Him with branches, but afterwards killed Him. What changed their minds? Was it anger? Was it selfishness? Was it pride? We can worship God with our lips, but will we still worship Him if He doesn’t give us what we want?
Palm Sunday is both joyful and convicting.
It should wake in us the deepest, most childlike joy. For these palms signify that our King has come and that we are citizens of His kingdom. And meanwhile, Palm Sunday should convict us just a little.
We hear from the lips of same crowd, “Hosanna in the Highest!” and “Crucify Him!” And so, we’re invited to look within our own heart. Deep down in the core of who I am, how will I respond to the Lord when I see Him? With a “Hosanna” or a “Crucify Him?” Who is the King in my life?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost