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Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. –Psalm 118:27
by Rachel Brownson
As a teenager who was really super into church and really super overwhelmed by her emotions pretty much 95% of the time, I loved Lent more than any other time in the church year. I loved the solemn putting away of the alleluias, the darkened purple sanctuary, the invitation to quiet, the permission for tears. I loved to feel that my sufferings, small as they were, connected me to Jesus. I did not, however, love Palm Sunday. What was joy doing right at the peak of Lent, messing up my sadness groove?
The dramatic irony of the story of Palm Sunday is that we know what is coming in the life of Jesus, but the disciples do not. We know that their joy, joy so all-encompassing that the stones themselves would cry out if they did not, is a prelude to torture and grief. We know that the festal procession, bound with branches, is bringing Jesus himself up to the horns of the altar as a sacrifice—we know that the parallel to this moment in scripture is the journey of Abraham and Isaac to Isaac’s binding. We know this is a funeral procession; he was prepared for it when Mary anointed his feet with burial spices. It’s jarring to be asked to feel joy when we know all this is coming.
Chaplains often joke amongst ourselves that our job is to make people cry—often when people feel like their suffering, their questions, their experiences have been genuinely heard, the tears start flowing. But there’s one moment that happens with some regularity in my work that looks a little different, and it’s one of the moments that makes my work worthwhile: I’ll be standing with a family around the bed of a patient who is about to die, or has just died, and I say, “I didn’t know her—what was she like? Are there stories you tell about her?” And nine times out of ten, there will be laughter in the room. Laughter in the midst of tears, but real laughter, real smiles.
A few years ago I was in Asheville, North Carolina, in my third residency out of six for my MFA in poetry writing. It was summer, evening, the mountain thrumming with crickets; all day I’d been listening to beautiful poets read beautiful poems, all day those beautiful poets had been teaching me what life is, what art is. I sat on the broad slate porch of the Fellowship Hall in the evening with a few friends and faculty members, listening to the poets Maurice Manning and Sara Slaughter sing old songs in warm Southern accents. It had just stopped raining and the air was soft and forgiving. One of my teachers began to sing along in his cracked and ragged voice.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy and so sad at once. I feel it again, right now, as I remember it. The pitch of the happiness itself brought about the sadness, because I knew this was fleeting and I would be gone from that place before long. I felt a choice before me at that moment—I could surrender to that grief right then, let it fill me up, or I could stroke its cheek and put it to bed until its time inevitably came.
Life is short. We know the ending. We know death comes for each one of us. We know that to try to replicate the constellation that brings about a particular happiness is to deaden that same happiness with imperfect repetition. So don’t be like my teenage self. Take joy when you can get it. Choose the joy, even when you know what’s coming. That’s what Jesus does, refusing to curtail the joy of his followers even in the face of the coming crucifixion. The joy does come, even at the peak of Lent, even at the deathbed of someone you love. Receive it. Savor it for the gift that it is.
Rachel Brownson is is a Reformed Church minister, a writer, and a board certified chaplain at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in the University of Michigan Health System.
This is beautiful. I have often been confused by Palm Sunday celebrations — for exactly the reasons you express. And I have experienced healthy laughter in the face of death — laughter through tears. Thank you for putting it in words.