If you think about it, we don’t have many occasions in church where we corporately act out Biblical stories. Sure, there’s your live nativities and Christmas type extravaganzas, but even those are as much spectator sport as active participation by the whole congregation. No such shenanigans on Pentecost or Ascension or Epiphany. No, most Sundays, it’s singing and liturgy and prayers that compromise the most that is required of any particular person in the pew.
But then, there’s Palm Sunday. Full on congregational participation. At the very minimum, there’s the palms, of course, necessary for enthusiastic waving. I’ve been to some churches that add a processional: everyone gathering in the narthex (or “lobby”) to march in together to some peppy hymn, flourishing the branches triumphantly as they scramble to still find their usual pews.
And to be honest, I’ve never really gotten it.
Palm Sunday should be the last dark week of Lent—instead, in its boisterous foliage-brandishing, it’s Easter Lite, its celebratory tone diminishing the real joy of Easter. Two weeks in a row, there’s a spirit of bright triumph. Easter just gets a few more trumpets, and the greenery (the lilies and tulips and such) stay more decorously in place.
But it’s more than that: why this story? Why emulate the crowd that got it so wrong?
Because they clearly did. Every sermon I’ve heard in recent years about this moment emphasizes that Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was nothing like our Palm Sundays—this was no praise service, no acknowledgment of the Kingdom of Heaven. Their “hosannas” were not “hallelujahs.” Instead, straight outta the Maccabees came the symbols of rebellion: the lifted palms, the castdown cloaks, and the loud “hosannas.” Those “hosannas” themselves had political implications—the cry of “save us” was ideological, not theological. This adoring crowd was welcoming Jesus as a political victor, a new King, a driver-out of the Romans—not a savior.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the crowd who got it so wrong turned so quickly later in the week when Jesus wasn’t what they thought he should be, when they realized that he had something else in mind altogether.
So, I wonder about our contemporary re-enactments and the way that they obscure the identification we should have with the people on that first Sunday. Rather than waving our own branches, maybe we should use Palm Sunday to quietly contemplate all the ways we too worship the Jesus we want, the Jesus who matches our own desires, rather than the Jesus who comes with his own plan. Too often, we want saving, but only on our own terms. Recognizing and repenting from that desire would be real preparation for Easter.
And it would make us less surprised about the crowd’s turning away from Jesus–because it is our own turn.
Lord, save us from our misguided triumphalism and mistaken expectations, and remind us again of the true priorities of your kingdom.