I’ve shared this before, but I will never forget the first time I ever attended a liturgical Palm Sunday service, expecting the usual procession with palms and the exuberance of children and the shouts of hosanna. They were all present. But then came the sudden, totally unexpected shift to the Liturgy of the Passion with its recitation of the Passion story right up to and ending with the Cross. This was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before on a Palm Sunday and I remember leaving the service stunned. The sermon wasn’t even about the “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem,” as it had been in every sermon from my childhood.
Even though the practice of reciting the full Passion story on Palm Sunday is ancient, it was not until 1955 that the name of the sixth Sunday in Lent was changed to “the Second Sunday of the Passion, or Palm Sunday,” and it currently is known as “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion” is one of those “both/and” things in our faith and practice. If we go directly from celebration, palm-waving and hosanna-shouting to the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal, the denials, the trials, the scourging, the crucifixion, the death and the burial, we need to move right along with that shift. Why? Because it’s precisely what our Lord Himself experienced on our behalf. The entrance into Jerusalem was only “triumphant” in a very limited sense; and remember that it was on the back of a donkey’s colt, not in the richly adorned horse-drawn chariot of a conquering hero. Jesus Himself knew exactly what this represented as well as what was next: that the experiences He had foretold to His disciples were looming in the immediate future. Yet Luke tells us in his Gospel that Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
This mixture of palm and passion, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, is a vital part of the narrative. This is how it happened, and this is how we’re to experience it, to re-enact it in our Palm Sunday liturgies. It shows us how quickly worldly acclaim moves to betrayal and denial. And if this Triumphal Entry had ushered in a completely different ending to the story, with the people making Jesus their king and the Roman armies moving in to crush yet another Middle Eastern rebellion, Jesus would have become a mere footnote in human history, if even that. But God had a different plan.
It’s a compelling lesson in how what we call the “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” merely foreshadows what we should call the “Triumphal Exit from Jerusalem” to Golgotha on Good Friday just a few days later. It forcefully brings to our attention the fact that our redemption was costly. But it also shows us that the Cross itself was a symbol not of defeat but of victory. Yes, there was defeat at the Cross; but it was the defeat of death and hell coupled with the victory of life eternal. It was our being covered, protected and sealed by the precious Blood of “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.”
I still find it immensely significant that we read the Passion story on Palm Sunday. It’s not just that we don’t save it for Thursday or Friday, but it’s that we read it in its entirety on this day through to the death on the Cross, though not a bit further. All we know at the end of our Palm Sunday celebration is that Jesus died and the lone person to testify to His deity is a lingering Roman centurion who goes unnamed. History has assigned various names to him, and he even has been elevated to sainthood under one of those names, Longinus. One the most amazing moments in the incomparable St. Matthew Passion of Bach occurs in the setting of the centurion’s indelible words:”Truly this was the Son of God.”
Yet a more careful reading of Matthew reveals that it was not just the centurion who made this great confession of Jesus, but that it was a group statement from all those who were “keeping guard over Jesus” (Matthew 27:54). We have no idea exactly what level of theological sophistication we can rightly attribute to them. What they knew for certain was that they had witnessed something and Someone quite out of the ordinary, and it made an appropriate impression on them.
There ends today’s story. What if it really were the end of the story? Paul gives us several consequences in I Corinthians 15, none of which we find attractive. He says that if Christ Jesus were not risen from the dead, then 7 dreadful things would be true:
- Paul’s preaching would have been in vain (vs. 14),
- Our faith would be in vain (vs. 14),
- We would be false witnesses of God (vs. 15),
- Our faith would be worthless (vs. 17),
- We would still be in our sins (vs. 17),
- Those who already have died in the faith of Christ would have perished (vs. 18),
- We would be of all persons most to be pitied (vs. 19).
What about these palms that we laid at the altar today? Today they symbolize a hollow triumph. Just 10 months from now, these same palm branches will be burned to ashes, the very ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. What will those ashes symbolize? They symbolize our mortality, “dust to dust and ashes to ashes,” but much more importantly they symbolize our repentance of sin and our pledge of faithful identification with the saving work of Christ. They will usher in yet another season of Lent, another season of penitence, of introspection and soul-searching, a time of re-committing to following the way of Jesus, recognizing that it’s first of all the Way of the Cross and only after that the way of the Resurrection.
And therein lies the true message of Palm Sunday. Today is far from being an end in itself, or even a destination along the way. It’s the entrance point into the darkest week in all of human history: a single week in which the incarnate Son of God Who came here for us and for our salvation is betrayed, rejected, arrested, falsely accused, tried and found guilty, beaten, crowned with thorns, forsaken by His closest followers, and subjected to a brutal and humiliating death.
The victory lap still lies ahead, and we know all about it. But for this moment, we need to focus anew on what it cost for our sins to be cleansed in His blood. If we question the fact that we’re sinners who have fallen far short of the glory of God, we would have every right to question why God’s only Son had to endure the Cross, despising its shame, in order to accomplish our redemption. Whatever we may think of our own merits, God made it abundantly clear that He weighed us in the balances and found us desperately wanting. Our desperate needs required God’s desperate measures.
This Holy Week, allow yourself to step away at least briefly from the giddiness of Palm Sunday and be reminded of the unspeakable price that was paid on your behalf. The eternal salvation of the worthiest human in history still depends on the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ. Your salvation depends on His finished work on the Cross. When He, having been nailed to the Cross, spoke those words that should be nailed to our hearts, “It is finished,” He alone knew precisely what that meant and what it had required. He left His Father’s throne to become one of us, to identify with our needs and frailties, but ultimately to give His life as our ransom to God.
In the words of a great hymn that we will sing Thursday evening,
Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine:
never was love, dear King, never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.
Give this time to sink in this week. Try not to leave here resuming life as usual. Take time this one week of the entire year to walk with Christ, less metaphorically and hypothetically than usual, but imagining that you were there when they crucified my Lord, that you were there when they nailed Him to the tree, that you were there when they laid Him in the tomb. If you make this your own spiritual exercise and discipline this Holy Week, then you will experience in a more heightened way than ever before what it means to be there when He rose up from the grave.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen