Hopes and Expectations (Palm Sunday)
Holy Week begins with drama. With the deliberate acting out of ancient prophecies. The time and place, the symbols and the route are all carefully chosen so that the scriptures may be fulfilled.
Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah: “On that day the Lord’s feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east. Then the Lord my God will come.” This is the day of the Lord, the day that God will act to liberate God’s people and become king over all the earth.
Jesus arranges for his disciples to bring him a donkey, a colt on which he will ride into the city. Again the message is unmistakeable, again from the prophet Zechariah: “Lo your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey . . . and he shall command peace to the nations.”
The crowd knows the script and they too take up their role in the drama. They respond with the words of Psalm 118. “Hosanna, save us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
And they go to the fields and cut palm branches, wave them in the air, and spread the leafy branches on the road that Jesus travelled. This too is a dramatic re-enactment, an acting out of the feast of Sukkoth, the great Jewish festival which commemorates the Exodus, the liberation of the people from slavery.
This is the day of the Lord, Jesus is king, he is coming to liberate us.
No wonder they were so excited, no wonder there were shouts of joy as Jesus made his way into the royal city.
This palm branch that I hold is a symbol of that joy, the sign of a king, and the hope for liberation.
But you know what we do with this branch on Palm Sunday. We take it and turn it into a cross. Have you ever made a palm cross? It’s not as easy as it looks. Because there’s a twist. Quite literally! In order to turn a palm branch into a cross you have to twist it. And with that twist, the palm cross now has a meaning which is almost the exact opposite of the palm branch that symbolized liberation. The palm cross becomes the symbol of execution. Anyone messing with the Roman Empire would be executed by Caesar in a painful, public death on the cross. That is the painful reality that we encountered in our reading of the passion gospel.
And so this palm cross that I’m holding is a contradictory symbol, a symbol full of tension. Our liturgy this morning is also full of tension. On the one hand we have the Palm Sunday liturgy, with its joyful singing that feels like a celebration. Then we follow that immediately with the liturgy of the passion. The word passion is derived from the Latin word for suffering. In our readings we hear first Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant, and then the gospel account of the trial, torture, and death of Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but putting the two together makes me feel uncomfortable. If you identified with the crowds as our two gospels were read today, did you notice how we all played two roles in the dual drama that was acted out? First we were the crowd who praised Jesus, who sang and waved palm branches in his honour. But then, only a short time later, we were again the crowd, but now we called out “Crucify Him, Crucify Him”.
How could we turn so quickly? How did that crowd in Jerusalem turn so quickly? How did our palm branches get twisted into crosses?
At least part of the answer seems to revolve around expectations, those of the Jerusalem crowd, and by implication, our expectations too. The crowd on Palm Sunday had expectations of Jesus that were sky-high. They understood Jesus’ arrival as the fulfillment of something they had been longing for, for hundreds of years. Jesus was the embodiment of their hope.
Jesus was the long awaited king who would bring liberation.
But of all the names that we give to Jesus, the name that is the most dangerous is “king”. Dangerous, that is, for us. Not because it is untrue, but because it is so easily misunderstood.
The crowd on Palm Sunday expected Jesus to be king – the king, that is, of the Jewish people. They expected Jesus to liberate them –to liberate, that is, the Jewish people from Roman oppression by overthrowing the Romans and restoring the Jewish people to political and military power. To exchange one human power structure for another. To put us on top of them.
But Jesus had a different vision of what liberation looks like, of what it means to bring about the kingdom of God. Jesus’ vision, his mission was to bring healing to a broken humanity, not just to his own ethnic group, but to all people. Jesus mission was to bring liberation to those who are oppressed. Jesus’ mission was to bring forgiveness and mercy, not condemnation. Jesus’ mission was to bring peace, shalom, in the full Hebrew sense of the word – to restore a broken and wounded humanity to harmony and wholeness.
And for those who were looking for a king who would be a military leader and overthrow the Romans, they would soon, within days, realize that Jesus was an absolute failure. So much so that when Pilate asked the question at Jesus so-called trial, “Are you the King of the Jews?” almost everyone knew that the answer was no.
Now, it’s easy for us to fault the crowd of two thousand years ago for having the wrong expectations of Jesus.
But we all have expectations of Jesus. Each of us comes here with our own understanding of who Jesus is. You might think of Jesus as a teacher, or as a healer, or as King, or as Son of God. But whatever your understanding of Jesus is, whatever expectations you have of Jesus, whatever it is that you are hoping for, you need to be prepared to bring those understandings and expectations and hopes before the cross. There, they will be deepened, expanded, re-shaped and perhaps overturned. The cross serves as the annual deconstruction of our expectations and understandings, indeed perhaps even our hopes and dreams.
What might this look like? You might think of Jesus as a great teacher, and he is a great teacher. But what happens to that understanding of Jesus as teacher when you bring it before the cross, what happens when the teacher is put on trial, when he suffers, when he dies. Maybe you get a deeper understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach. Maybe you get a sense of how scandalous that teaching was. Maybe you start to realize that there is more going on here than just teaching.
Each of us has our own expectations of Jesus. We may expect him to be on our side, or to help us to prosper, or to provide moral insights, or to comfort us in times of trouble or to just leave us alone. But whatever our particular expectations are, when we bring them before the cross, Jesus has a way of overturning them, of going against the conventional wisdom, of nudging us into new and sometimes uncomfortable ways of looking at things. The passion gospel invites us into the suffering of Jesus because in order for God to bring us to wholeness, to shalom, we need to be aware of the depth of human suffering and therefore what liberation truly means. Jesus is the one who turns our reality upside down, opening for us a new and bigger reality, a reality which he calls the Kingdom of God.
So I will hang on to my palm cross. It’s the twisted symbol of the one who was expected to be king, but was nailed to a cross. It’s the symbol of the one who was expected to save his people from their enemies, but instead saved his people and their enemies through his death on the cross, reconciling all people to God and showing us what it truly means to love and forgive.
Homily. Year B, Palm Sunday, March 28 2021
Readings: Mk11:1-11; Is 50:4-9a; Ps 31:9-16; Phil 2:5-11; Mk 14:1-15:47
Image by Colin Paterson, Creative Commons