Today is Palm Sunday. Last year, I celebrated it in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast. A French Jesuit led a small group of us in the liturgy. I still have the fronds that we had taken from a savanna palm tree just outside the chapel door.
I have been interested in Palm Sunday ever since I can remember. It appears in all four Gospels and commemorates Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. The crowds welcomed him with palm fronds and hailed him as the Messiah, many believing he would free them from Roman occupation (Mal 4).
Although the liturgical calendar separates Palm Sunday from Easter Sunday by one week, Jesus’ ministry from his entrance into Jerusalem until his arrest and crucifixion was lengthy (Lk 21:37-38). It consisted of teaching in the temple, telling parables, and prophesying the tribulation about to befall Jerusalem (Mk 13:1-23).
As we know, it did not end well for Jesus, although it did for his followers and the rest of us who continue to follow him. This is expressed during the Easter Vigil in the famous felix culpa (happy fault) line of the Exsultet. We have been redeemed from sin and death, which entered the world through our own fault, by the death of another, the God man.
What fascinates me about Palm Sunday is that Jesus went from riding into the city in exaltation one day to being dragged out of it to his execution on another. In both cases, he was hailed as the King of the Jews. Earlier, it was done in earnest and with high expectations. Later, the people and Roman legionaries mocked him with that title and humiliated him in vile ways, which must have been even worse than the physical torture. A careful reading of the Synoptic Gospels (i.e., Mt 27:27-31, Mk 15:16-20, Lk 22:63-65) reveals the sadistic twist of the crowd and executioners.
Humiliation and betrayal lie at the heart of the passion of Christ. In fact, you find them at the center of the Christian faith.
Theologians have debated for centuries whether these traits are endemic to our human nature, or simply soil what is essentially good and holy, since we have been made in the image of God, or imago Dei. If you were to decide just from the historical record as it is presented during Holy Week, it would be hard to defend human beings as anything other than cowardly, sniveling double crossers, which makes Jesus’ sacrifice even more incredible.
But being welcomed with palm and olive branches one day only to be cursed and spat on by the same people on another speaks not just to human nature but to the world we have created, one in which randomness and chaos reign. Things appear to happen haphazardly and without any rhyme or accountability.
Take the stock market, which might be a perfect reflection of the worst in human nature. Or success and failure in business, which, despite the vapid Twitter talk about start-ups, contain an element of randomness and what those who are honest enough to admit call “luck.”
Some argue that randomness and chaos exemplify the material world. But you would have to be deliberately blind not to see that the physical universe has an order that does not come from within but without. Otherwise, contrary to what scientists observe, all things would be self-contained, self containment being something so alien to reality that only ideologues have the audacity to believe in it. The rest of us acknowledge our need for something beyond ourselves. That something Christians call grace.
To say that it is ironic that the grace we need to overcome cowardice, betrayal, and greed comes from without is an understatement. The fact that it comes from the target of our cowardice, betrayal, and greed makes Palm Sunday even more important, and not just for dramatic effect.
Palm Sunday doesn’t just set the stage for the redemption to come on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It lays before us the contrast against which we are able to see how much we need to change and the reality that we do not have the power to change ourselves. The Good News is that we can’t shake this grace no matter how hard we try.
And, God knows, we’ve tried.