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Sunday, April 5, 2020

An Affirmation | Palm Sunday 2020


Among my early memories of growing up Catholic there is one of being handed a palm frond. From a climate I'd not yet experienced, this long, strange leaf was given to each person entering the church. At one point my mother told me to wave it around, and so I did, seeing other people holding theirs up. It was only years later that I began to see the palm fronds being shaped into crosses for people to hold. When I was old enough to understand the story of Jesus' final days, Palm Sunday became a mystery for me on another level.
"Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" Matthew 21:8-9* 
Why were we celebrating the fickleness of humanity? This is the question that lingered with me for years.

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem has been seen by Christians through the centuries as the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
He is righteous and victorious.
He is humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the offspring of a donkey."
It also appears to echo an event described in 1 Maccabees 13:51:
"On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the year 171, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs. A great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel."
In context, it comes in the days before the last supper, the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Simon Peter's denial of Jesus. It precedes the torture and execution of Jesus. The man who was heralded as the savior of Israel a few days before was rejected and subjected to an agonizing death. One day the people were celebrating Jesus, and not long after they were calling for his crucifixion, as Matthew 27:21-24 has it:
"The governor said, 'Which of the two do you want me to release to you?'
'Barabbas,' they replied.
Pilate said, 'Then what should I do with Jesus who is called Christ?'
They all said, 'Crucify him!”
But he said, 'Why? What wrong has he done?'
They shouted even louder, 'Crucify him!'
Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was starting. So he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I’m innocent of this man’s blood,' he said. 'It’s your problem.'"
They went from crying 'hosanna' to howling for his blood. And this is something we celebrate on Palm Sunday? I suppose that Christians are actually celebrating what they see as prophecy fulfilled, rather than the ultimate failure of humanity to do the right thing...particularly when there's a crowd involved.

Crowds seem to have a mind of their own. A mob can easily mete out injustice at a dizzying page, and a riot can wipe out a neighborhood. The thing is, a lot of people involved probably don't really know why they're there. Some do, but I suspect many who get swept up in these things either have heard a distortion of the truth ('this man wants to destroy our sacred temple'), or really don't know any reason at all. Sometimes the sheer energy of a large group can stir the emotions and provide all the reason people feel they need. After all, so many people can't be wrong, right?

Everyone loves a parade. Well, I suppose there are some curmudgeons who don't, but by and large as long as a parade isn't stopping traffic for you, it's kind of fun to see it pass by. Except for the clowns. They're simply horrifying. I submit that the event described in the Gospels and referred to as the 'Triumphal Entry' is simply a sort of parade. Making the enormous assumption that the occasion is historical, there were certainly those who knew why they were there ('Jesus is fulfilling Scripture'), others half-understood ('This man will set us free from the Romans'), and others just loved hooting and hollering.

Parades, with the exception of the sort that Hitler put on, are generally harmless fun. Sometimes candy even gets tossed out to the watching children. People cheer for cool floats and for organizations they've never heard of, and a good time is had by all. The parade is itself the point.
"To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole." ― Josef Pieper
It's nice to have a birthday party for a loved one, or a parade for Homecoming. Sometimes no reason at all is required. Whether there's a defined purpose or none at all, any celebration at no one's expense is an affirmation of life itself.

Bible citations in this post are from the Common English Bible, Copyright 2012