It was a warm Spring weekend in March 2010, and I was in the middle of an adventurous trip to rural east India. I decided to visit a local church in Ranchi, Jharkhand that Sunday, but was told that there probably wouldn’t be many people gathering in the morning and it might not be safe to venture out alone. There had been some recent persecution of Christians in that region, and many Ranchi residents were skeptical of whether the church congregation would turn out in large numbers.
Determined to check it out for myself, I set out for the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church – the most visible church in town – “early,” at 7:00 a.m. As I approached the church property, I heard the singing of familiar hymns in a foreign language and soon saw crowds of people lining the streets. When I was finally able to enter the church gates, I was astonished to see hundreds of people waving palm branches, gripping their Bibles tightly, shouting “Hosanna, Yesu Masih ki jai!” (“Hosanna, Jesus be praised!”) and singing “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” – standard tune with Hindi lyrics.
I suddenly realized that it was Palm Sunday, and felt ashamed and embarrassed that I didn’t even remember this significant date beforehand. I found out that the church’s Palm Sunday gathering had started at 6:00 a.m. that morning and was scheduled to go on the entire day, with most of the crowd – who had come from all over the region – standing in the overflow area outdoors in 90-degree heat.
At the heart of the city, the GEL Church, named after German theologian and philanthropist Johannes Evangelista Gossner (1773-1858), is an imposing structure and has been the congregational center of worship and fellowship for over a century. The church traditions, sourced in scripture and established mainly by Lutheran missionaries of German descent, are enduring. In a country characterized by polytheism and a secular worldview, the cultural atmosphere is saturated with unique expressions of different religions – there are numerous holy days and holidays – and on India’s streets, in the marketplaces, in temples and shrines, there always seems to be a celebration. Against this multicultural backdrop, the evangelical church community remains strong in its adherence to the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is inspiring to see believers celebrate our Savior with unity and solidarity.
I was truly amazed at the enthusiasm and joy with which people were gathered in Jharkhand and the lengths to which they went to commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a historic event which took place over two thousand years ago. With most of their resources coming from a basic agrarian economy, the people took great delight in waving their palm branches and some had made small crosses fashioned out of palm leaves.
“This is the most important week of our year,” a young girl explained to me as she offered me her palm branch. “Our salvation is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we must recognize and honor every aspect of His Passion Week.”
Another parishioner was a little more bold. “You Americans celebrate Christmas for the entire month of December, but you don’t even take one week to celebrate what was the most significant week in history?” he asked me in a tone of disbelief and genuine confusion. “We have much to learn from you,” was all I could say in response.
This wasn’t the first time I had been blown away by the faith and courage of believers in India and convicted of my own priorities. But my Palm Sunday experience in rural Ranchi left an indelible impression on me, and since then I have never viewed Palm Sunday the same way.
Three years later, I am pondering my Indian experience and reminded of a few lessons I learned that day. As we enter the Passion Week once again, how can we intentionally approach this significant time?
Reflect on the numerous prophecies fulfilled in scripture.
From the first promise of the Savior in Genesis to the last invitation to salvation in Revelation, the Passion of Jesus Christ is the pivotal point in human history and the culmination of millennia of biblical prophecy. God’s redemptive plan is totally integrated in scripture, and every single event that took place fulfilled a specific prophetic word.
These east Indian believers understood that they were celebrating the fulfillment of prophecy and carrying on the traditions established in the first century in the Holy Land. Throughout India, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is commemorated with solemnity and anticipation – observed with communal worship and fellowship – adhering to first century pattern and adapted to the unique cultural context of the Indian church.
Prepare our hearts to contemplate and celebrate the cross.
Observing the reverence and devotion with which these believers approach the scriptural account really reinforced the significance of the Passion Week – a time of preparation. The Indian pastor called us to prepare our hearts to receive the true significance of this monumental week, beginning with the celebration on Palm Sunday, continuing with the crucible of suffering, and completed by the glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Indeed, the last three days of our Lord’s earthly life occupy one-fifth of the narratives in the four Gospels. And the triumphant entry marked the beginning of the Passion Week. Preparation is a theme in Christ’s final conversations on earth, as demonstrated so powerfully in his upper room discourse with the disciples.
Pray for the persecuted church around the world.
In the midst of the global expansion of the church and the growth of local congregations, there is worldwide persecution of believers. The uniqueness and exclusivity of Jesus Christ – when proclaimed with passion and boldness in polytheistic and eclectic cultures – often arouses radical and militant reactions and Christians can sometimes be in real danger.
I met with an Indian religious liberty attorney who told me that Christians in rural parts of India – national believers as well as foreign missionaries – are frequently targeted around Easter and take many risks to publicly profess their faith.
But in the midst of this difficult environment, God is working powerfully through believers across India and we cling to the promise of Jesus Christ that He is building His church, and even “the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). I cannot fully express how encouraging it is to see the Name of Jesus lifted high by those who have truly taken up their crosses to follow Him no matter what the cost.
Looking at the local east Indian congregation share the joy and enthusiasm expressed by the pilgrims in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday over two thousand years ago as they welcomed Jesus inspires us to join with believers around the world in heartfelt worship and praise. Palm branches, emblematic of peace and victory, show us that Jesus Christ has brought us peace with God and achieved victory over sin, death and the devil, and we can live triumphantly in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As we prepare to enter into Passion Week, may the spirit of Palm Sunday – historically the triumphant entry and prophetically anticipating the soon coming King – reign in our hearts. Hosanna!
This column first appeared in The Christian Post.