So you want to know about Palm Sunday and why it matters to anyone, and particularly why Unitarian Universalists who are not “Christian-flavored UUs” would care about it.
Tomorrow marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem! And it is a total comedy/tragedy of errors. Of course, if your theology is that God planned everything to work out that way from the beginning, you don’t believe that, but I do. I think Palm Sunday is the numero uno day of the liturgical year when we can all regard with both horror and a sense of sad affection how vast the chasm between our own worldly hopes and expectations and the way God (the Holy) works in the world.
Jesus has been preaching, teaching, healing, doing miracles. Mostly, he’s been doing the miracle of making disowned, unloved, untouchable human beings feel like they matter. He has been telling a community of occupied Jews that they’re part of God’s plan for a world of shalom/wholeness/peace/righteousness.
He has gotten really popular, and this is kind of a problem with the Roman authorities. They have put some of the Jewish priests into little positions of power — nothing too high up in Caesar’s administration, you understand –just high enough to keep an eye on their own, collect taxes from them, keep the thumb of control on them for the overlords. You know what I mean? Look around poverty-stricken, frustrated communities today. Look at the minor power brokers who keep the seething to a manageable brew of anger, pain, discontent.
Jesus isn’t one of those. His power is from the soul — from God. It’s unmistakeable. He shines with it. His power changes things inside people, who then feel empowered to change things outside of themselves, right? They gather around this guy in big crowds.
Really dangerous. Because when you’re trying to keep society operating in that clear hierarchal way where the wealth and power are concentrated on the top with a permanently disempowered underclass, a guy like Jesus is a problem for you.
But here’s where the real pathos comes in. Jesus and his close community of followers (we know them as the disciples) are riding into Jerusalem to have their Passover feast there. The symbolism of all these Jews pouring into their holy city to observe the festival of their liberation from slavery makes the Romans a bit itchy, but they’ve handled this before, they have the boots and shields and billy clubs and crucifying nails all ready to go, and they have already well established that they won’t hesitate to use them if the Jews get too uppity. Does this remind you of anything happening anywhere in our world today?
Like William Faulker said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
The disciples are all psyched because they think Jesus is going to do some kind of – I don’t even know, exactly, but let’s just say they think he’s going to do some kind of “Die Hard” Bruce Willis kind of savior thing.
But Jesus has no such intention. He is going to actually die hard, but not in a Bruce Willis kind of way. What he is going to do later in the week is gather his followers around him and institute a mystical ritual of remembrance by which he will promise to be with them in the eating of bread and the drinking of wine when they are gathered in his spirit. “Do this in memory of me.”
What will happen next is that one of his own people will turn Jesus in to the authorities, and a terrible calamity ensues, or the will of God ensues: it depends on your theology. That is what’s coming.
My own theology is that the events of Palm Sunday illustrate the breaking point between what the soul must do and what the world insists we should do (with a knife at the throat or a whip in hand for added persuasion). For me, Palm Sunday is the story of how God is with us and within us even when we suffer terrible agonies in the process of choosing integrity of the soul over the brute machinations of the world. The people waving the palms at Jesus have no idea what kind of internal struggle he is experiencing as he rides past them. The poignancy is almost unbearable.
Jesus is the soul teacher whose lessons are grounded in our political and psychological realties, which is why I follow him as opposed to gurus whose teachings do not directly address political reality.
Palm Sunday is very, very sad for me. I need to experience this sadness as I consider Jesus’ own awareness of what is going to happen to him as he rides into Jerusalem, as I wonder what it was like to have his thoughts. I believe he knew the agonies that were on the way because he was enlightened about human nature and had painfully acute insight into his own particular context – not because God was whispering a script into his ear the whole time.
Palm Sunday matters a lot to me as a Unitarian Universalist because it speaks to me about the hollowness of trying to do social reform from a place that isn’t grounded in the soul. You know why? Because the powers of the world (what Paul called “powers and principalities”) must be met with more than good organizing and a vision for better days. I find in the Biblical prophets and in the gospel narrative, clear and compelling evidence that a just and equitable society is not just a mushy liberal fantasy but how GOD ACTUALLY WANTS US TO SHAPE REALITY in accordance with some kind of cosmic law. I mean, when I think of how Jesus encouraged us to live, and I look at the environmental crisis we’re in, I think, “Yea, laugh if you want, sophisticated folks, but if the Western world had actually adopted Jesus’ code of conduct (“don’t store up treasures on earth,” etc.) we wouldn’t be in this mess at all.”
And speaking of ears (which we were a paragraph ago), there is an amazing moment coming in the melee of Jesus’ arrest (technically Maundy Thursday, if you’re looking to observe Holy Week) where Peter whips out his sword and slices off the ear of one of the servants of the high priest Caiaphas who has busted up their dinner party. Guess what Jesus does! In the midst of this chaos, he stops and reattaches Malchus’s ear!! This miracle only happens in the gospel of Luke, which is my favorite for lots of reasons (more women stories, for one), and it is one of my favorite gospel moments. On one level, it’s a fantastic Jesus moment of correction: “No, reality isn’t supposed to be this way, so let me fix reality for a moment to show you what it needs to look like.” On a symbolic level, it’s wonderful that he reattaches someone’s ear, the body part responsible for listening and hearing. What do you make of that? I make of it that we need to be able to “hear” each other (whether we are hearing or deaf people, it’s not literal) rather than lashing out with our swords.
Palm Sunday gives us the triumphal ride into Jerusalem with the rock star messiah Jesus being “hosanna’d” by crowds waving palms (kind of the first century messianic welcome version of holding up your lighter at a concert). It leads us to the quiet, holy mystery of the first communion during the Last Supper (I have always wondered why we don’t call that event the First Communion instead of the Last Supper, actually. I mean, if we call the death day of Jesus “Good Friday,” it would certainly be consistent). We’ll be checking in later in the week to talk about Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. At least I hope I will have time to. If I don’t get to Maundy Thursday before Good Friday, at least you know a bit about it. Unitarian Universalists do not traditionally host Maundy Thursday services, although some do. It is the traditional time of year to have Communion for many of our New England congregations. Some of our congregations host a Passover seder and I have attended a Passover/Maundy Thursday combined observance in one of our congregations.
And so I will leave this here. Thanks for your interest and companionship. Would love to hear from you.
The story of Malchus John 18:10–11; Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47; and Luke 22:51. Pastor Brad McDowell’s Palm Sunday sermon. Journalist Sara Miles’ memoir of how randomly deciding to take Communion one day changed her life: Take This Bread.