Palm Sunday is the story of a triumphant entry into certain doom.
In-between Palm Sunday and Easter is the valley of betrayal, despair, and loss. The fact is, Holy week isn’t just one week. It is every week, every year, every lifetime— the highs and the lows, the greatest joys and most cutting hurts, truth and deception, love and hate, birth and death.
If the Christian story of Holy Week only had Palm Sunday and Easter, it wouldn’t be much of a story. A religion with only tales of triumph and happiness is no religion at all.
Let me remind you of the story.
A trouble-maker has been active all over the regions around Jerusalem. He’s been breaking all kinds of rules and flouting his rule-breaking in the faces of the authorities. He is riling up the poor people, the oppressed people, the sick people, the homeless people, he is telling them that God loves them, he is telling them that loving each other and being kind to each other is more important than following the old rules. He is drawing something new in the ashes of their old life. He makes friends with the outcast, eats meals with the unclean, defends the criminal.
He started with just 12 followers…but by now his followers count in the thousands. They call him a prophet. One who speaks the truth.
This rebellious young man is named Jesus.
The people love him. The powerful abhor him…but they aren’t yet sure if he’s just annoying, or a real threat. The people know: he is not leaving. He is arriving.
At this point in the story, is time for Passover, and Jesus, like many other Jews of his time, heads to Jerusalem, the holy city, to celebrate.
It is a classic Bible story, filled with details that are weird and confusing, and missing the kind of details you really want to know.
The way the book of Luke tells it, Jesus is walking to Jerusalem with his disciples and followers, and when he gets close, he sends two of his disciples out to get him a steed. Luke says it is a colt, but the book of Matthew, in one of those weird confusing details, says Jesus requests two animals: a colt and a donkey, though how and why Jesus would ride two steeds at once I have no idea. Maybe it would look sort of like trick water-skiing — but on donkeys.
Jesus is pretty confident his disciples will be able to get a colt even though they have no money. He actually tells them, and I quote: “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
It was good he gave that instruction, because the owner of the colt sees two guys making off with his property and says, “Hey, what are you doing with my colt?!” but the disciples were prepared and said, “It’s cool, the Lord needs it.”
The detail that is missing here I want to know is — was that explanation really good enough? Because if yes — Nordstrom here I come!
The disciples bring the colt back to Jesus, they prep it by throwing their coats on it to make a comfier seat, Jesus gets up and then they keep journeying to Jerusalem. By now they are passing by neighborhoods where people recognize Jesus from all his teachings and healings in the region. The book of Luke says:
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
The people spread their coats and leafy palm branches in the road. Hence: Palm Sunday. The stony, dirty, dusty road is smoothed and softened under the coats and palms. Jesus’ passageway is made gentler, cleaner. He is protected from the dust of the road—his face shines like great sky above.
The footsteps of the crowd and hoofbeats of the colt are muffled, noiseless, as they walk over the soft coats and branches. All that can be heard are the songs of joy, hosannas of praise. “Hosanna!” they sing, “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
It’s a pop-up parade of loud, poor people who have the audacity to be happy. You know someone is going to complain. And someone does: disgruntled Pharisees yell at Jesus to tell his disciples to stop being so loud.
Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
The prophet Jesus was not the only person riding into town in a big celebratory procession. That same day, Caesar’s army is heading to Jerusalem, led by Pontius Pilate.
They arrive from the west, a beautiful parade of violence: a long line of stately horses, tall Roman soldiers in armor carrying banners, golden eagles mounted on poles. No songs of Hosanna here: just the soldiers with their marching footsteps and clanking armor, the loud clip-clop, clip-clop of a thousand war horses, war drums keeping the beat of their procession.
The crowd watching this parade is silent as the grave.
And so they march into town from opposite ends, and they have almost the same destination. Because Pontius Pilate is coming into town to make sure that the Jewish people of Jerusalem stay peaceful during the holiday celebration of Passover. He’s going to the military headquarters.When an oppressed people are celebrating a holiday about God killing their former oppressors and giving the people freedom—well—I’m sure Pilate thought the watchful eye of the law was called for.
Jesus was heading to the temple. The military headquarters and the temple faced each other across the plaza.
So the procession and the counter-procession march into town. In one marches the ruler, the dominant force, the maker of reality. In the other rides a renegade, the subverting force, the imaginer of a new reality.
It is a triumphal entry to certain doom.
He is not leaving, he is arriving. We know the story, and he knows the story.
It reminds me of some lines from the poem “The Journey” by David Whyte
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
That day in Jerusalem, Jesus rode under a great sky clutching for that wedge. Was he afraid? I think he probably was. He was human after all. But he got on the donkey anyway, and he rode through his fear, over the cloaks and palm branches that protected him from the stones and dirt of the road beneath him. The songs of Hosanna surrounded and lifted him.
A week later he will be dragged through those same stones, that same dirt and the crowd will be shouting a different song.
Holy week is for everyone. Not just the triumphant. Not just the joyful. Holy week is also for the lost, the broken, the despairing.
Every week is Holy Week.
Sometimes we have palms under our feet.
Sometimes we have stones against our faces.
Sometimes we are lauded with praise and hosannas.
Sometimes even the stones are silent.
Jesus comes into Jerusalem and spends every minute of the next week fighting against the ruling powers. He tosses tables in the temple. He mocks the hypocrisy of the priests and the authorities. He is starting a rebellion. Occupy Jerusalem.
Pontius Pilate starts to get more than a little annoyed. He gets a little worried. It’s one thing to have one troublemaker, but a troublemaker with a following is dangerous. It was time to toss this protestor out of the rally. Pilate was just trying to make Jerusalem great again.
Bible scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan remind us:
It is important to realize that what killed Jesus was nothing unusual. [As] empires go, Rome was better than most. There was nothing exceptional or abnormal about it; this is simply the way domination systems behave. So common is this dynamic that it can also be called the normalcy of civilization. Good Friday was the result of the collision between the passion of Jesus and the normalcy of civilization.
The normalcy of civilization keeps the powerful in power, keeps the wealthy rich, keeps the poor poor. The normalcy of civilization keeps refugees out. The normalcy of civilization lets poor sick people die while rich sick people live.
The normalcy of civilization continues to use rape as a tool of war. The normalcy of civilization gives white men assault rifles and puts black men in jail.
We live in a very normal civilization.
When will come the fall of our Roman empire?
Palm Sunday asks us to pick a procession and start walking. Which leader do you choose to follow?
Do not stand mutely by the side of the road. The stones cannot speak for us. We must be the ones to shout out. It is time to set off on a strange journey and make a great noise.
We are not leaving, not yet. We are arriving.
Under our feet, the palms, the coats, the stones, the dirt.
In our hand, the hand of another.
In our mouths, hosannas.
In our hearts, a small, bright and indescribable wedge of freedom.
Prepare ye the way for Peace. Hosanna, may it be so.
 My description comes from the work of Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The Last Week, The Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem, and from The Bible Workbench for 3/16/08 pg 100.
 Page 162-163 from Borg and Crossan’s book The Last Week, cited in Bible Workbench resources for April 5, 2009.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Reverend Claire Feingold Thoryn is parish minister at Follen Community Church in Lexington, MA. A 2006 graduate of Harvard Divinity School, she was raised as Unitarian Universalist in the Washington, DC area and attended Swarthmore College. She lives in Lexington with her husband and two daughters.