John 12:13 - They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
This is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Holy Week, the day that Christians for generations have celebrated as the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. When I was a child attending the Presbyterian Church, I would be part of the procession of boys and girls carrying palm branches as church began. It was exciting, and we all were smiling; the parents were smiling.
As I look upon Palm Sunday several themes jump out at me: courage, hope, joy, releasing the old perceptions of our small self and leaning upon God’s understanding, not our own.
This last theme reminds me of a joke: A man was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching his wife, who was looking at herself in the mirror. Since her birthday was not far off, he asked what she'd like to have for her birthday."I'd like to be eight again..." she replied, still looking in the mirror.
On the morning of her birthday, he woke up early, made her a nice big bowl of Fruit Loops, and then took her to Adventure World. What a day! He put her on every ride in the park; the Death Slide, the Wall of Fear, the Screaming Roller Coaster, everything there was. Five hours later, they staggered out of the theme park. Her head was reeling, and her stomach felt upside down. He took her to a McDonald's where he ordered her a Happy Meal with extra fries and a chocolate shake.
Then it was off to a movie with popcorn, a soda and her favorite candy, M&M's. What a fabulous adventure! Finally, she wobbled home with her husband and collapsed into bed, exhausted.
He leaned over his wife with a big smile and lovingly asked, "Well dear, what was it like being eight again?" Her eyes slowly opened, and her expression suddenly changed. "I meant my dress size, Einstein."
This is how the people saw Jesus. They looked upon him as their new King, their savior from their socio-political religious conundrum. Little did they know at the time that Christ came not on a journey of contention and hostility, but a journey of love. Any salvation that he was to provide would come through embracing peace and love, not power and strife. Ultimately, Christ would thrust the people into a dilemma because he would not respond the way the world dictated. He would not live according to the injunctions of man, but of God; he would live by love, not by vengeance.
The Passover of 30AD was a festive occasion for many, but not for everyone who attended this religious festival. For the Jewish common folk – yes, they were excited. But for the Roman guards and centurions who monitored activities, and the local religious and political leaders, there was grave concern. Because there had been a history of unrest in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas, and fresh rumors of unrest floated through the community, Pilate chose to attend this Passover with a military presence. History reveals that Pilate headed an imperial procession of soldiers, entering the city from the west entrance with horsemen, footmen, archers, drummers, and banners waving.
The intention was to send a message, create an atmosphere, and invoke their theology. He wanted to inform those who may be plotting against the Romans that any disturbance was intolerable and would be dealt with decisively. Also, Pilate’s pageant was to emphasize that according to Roman theology, Emperor Tiberius bore divine titles, just as his predecessor, Augustus, was given the titles “Son of God”, “Savior”, and “Lord”.
Sometime after this procession, a second procession, a ‘counter-procession’ began at the east entrance to the city. This would be a procession of common people, simple peasants. Although Jesus had been keeping a low profile, when the time arrived, he chose to make a very public entry into Jerusalem. He asked that his disciples acquire the foal of a donkey and as he entered, the people became jubilant. The people were so excited that in John 12:19, “The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’” In fact, all of life felt the elation and joy of Christ’s presence… for when the Pharisees ordered Jesus to control the crowd he replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
These two processionals demonstrate the contrasts of kings, kingdoms, ideologies, theologies, motivations, and intentions. Sadly, even the common people who were siding with Jesus were doing it for the same reason the Pharisees and Sadducees were siding with the Romans – they wanted their way; they wanted their agenda advanced. The common people wanted Jesus to bring freedom from an oppressive system that pervaded every area of their lives. They thought Jesus would make their lives better through the elimination of their enemies.
The irony is that the stones would have shouted for the right reasons – they knew that Christ had arrived to fulfill a grand plan, and not meet just the small demands of the human ego. This is how our awakening begins, this is how our consciousness expands – through initial fits and starts and stutters, When we face a challenge along our spiritual journey, sometimes we take it to God expecting that God will take it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Then Spirit whispers to our hearts that the plan is for us to become stronger, more capable, confident, and peaceful, and that through the love and help and grace of God we can handle any challenge that the world presents to us.
This is the journey we are on, the journey that Christ demonstrated -- the journey of love. Hand in hand we walk with Christ on a daily sojourn. Our challenge is, like Christ, to ask for the donkey to ride and not an armored tank. Our challenge is to face our conflicts and fears with peace, humility, and wisdom, asking for the help of Christ while releasing our earthly habits and old thought processes.
The lessons from Palm Sunday are numerous: not to judge appearances or presume the intentions of others; to control the false hopes created by the dictates of our ego. Ultimately, the might and allure of the world is no match for the Love and Peace of God. Perhaps another lesson could be that what we think we want cannot compare to the good that God has planned for us. Which kingdom do we choose on a moment to moment basis: the kingdom of man with its ostentatious display of violence, power, might, and glory or the Kingdom of God with its quiet whispers of peace, joy, strength, hope, compassion, wisdom, and love?
The journey that brought Jesus to Jerusalem was always about Love, always about educating, demonstrating, and trying to enlighten the hearts and minds of anyone open to the gentle nudges of Spirit. Christ offers us courage and hope, even if we are misdirected in our perceptions. We may not understand what is happening to us or why, but we can maintain faith that God’s plans are working to our good. Despite all the processes that seem to be working against us, the truth is that we simply cannot see them the way that God does. We have more to learn, areas of our lives and thinking and attitudes that need more love and revelation. We are like the people greeting Jesus in Jerusalem; unaware that there is more to what we are facing than we can know from our limited human perspective.
Palm Sunday helps remind us that Christ is available and is a ready help. Through Christ we can release our grasp on the familiar earthly ways of dealing with our difficulties. The old gets in the way, and the earthly ego stymies our attempts to grow in our consciousness of Spirit. This is the meaning behind the resurrection of Christ. It is the giving up of the body; it is giving up of insisting upon doing it our way, or the world’s way.
Next week is Easter, the time when the fullest of us is revealed in Spirit. My prayer is that until then we will live in the reverence, courage, joy, hope and peace of Palm Sunday as we continue our journey of love.