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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.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

14 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “ … 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.”

    Nailed it! Not only on Palm Sunday, but most every Sunday, and Monday, and Tuesday, …

    Let’s get quiet this year and sincerely ask Him what He wants us to do…

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Jennifer, you’re such a marvelous Calvinist! Of course you’re so right on interpreting the story, straight out of Maccabees. I wonder when Palm Sunday processions and palm-waving made their way into our formerly sober congregations? What my grandmother would have called “Rooms gedoe”. Perhaps we do it to bring judgment on ourselves, in an unaware irony.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      But at the same time, my heart rejoices in it, having led the Palm Sunday procession through the streets of Hoboken, and then rejoicing by our Children’s Parade in our huge sanctuary in Brooklyn. Sometimes even we Calvinists have to just receive the Kingdom like children. And, how often as a pastor, have I not just given in, and done so rightly.

  • Well said and right on target. Yet, we do this anyway.

  • RLG says:

    Let’s see. How many Christian denominations are there? Hundreds, even thousands? Why? All, or at least most, because they each interpret portions of Scripture different from the next. Thanks, Jennifer, for your interpretation on the Palm Sunday proceedings, demonstrating clearly how wrong the others are. Isn’t that the story of Christianity?

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one who finds this practice out of place. Very hard to shift the conversation around it – it’s about the kids. The adults participating usually awkwardly, half-heartedly wave their branches, making it even more strange.

  • Connie VanDyke says:

    Amen, sister! I personally would like the practice of Lent repentance and self-examination to be from Palm Sunday till Easter Eve. Then I’d like 40 days of celebrating resurrection!! That certainly is the emphasis of Paul in his letters.

  • David E Timmer says:

    In our congregation, Palm Sunday tends to have a rather head-snapping change in emotional valence over the course of the service. The warm, innocent triumph is there at the beginning, but chillier winds are blowing by the end, as we are reminded that Good Friday lies ahead. I don’t have a problem with that. Sure, the crowd got it wrong, and we get it wrong, too. But they did get something right: that what Jesus was about to do had more than merely “spiritual” significance. The Church has been trying to work out what that means ever since, in its all-too-human way. But in Christ, God gives us permission to be human.

  • Ann says:

    Love this reflection! I suppose we too, by waving our palms, ARE identifying with those who got it wrong, who a week later were calling for Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. My first Palm Sunday in an Episcopal church took me by surprise. We did begin the service in the narthex with palms and process in to a triumphant hymn. But then the service took a sharp turn and we read the entire story of the crucifixion. My first reaction was confusion… wait, this is Palm Sunday, it isn’t supposed to be dark and depressing. But every year we do the same, and I’ve grown to really appreciate the bi-polar feeling of this liturgy.

    Also- on Pentecost we corporately act out the speaking in languages for the Gospel reading. Inviting everyone to read in any language they can speak. It’s quite powerful. My children stand there amazed. I wonder if others have examples of corporate bible re-enactments. It’s good to connect our physical bodies with the stories.

  • Ronald A Wells says:

    Jennifer,
    I agree with the idea you’re putting forward here, about getting it wrong.

    But in defense of the custom, I refer to the Palm Sunday processional sung in the Episcopal church in which I grew up. It is not a happy tune, but full of theological meaning. It is “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty” Here’s the last verse,

    Ride on, ride on in majesty!
    In lowly pomp ride on to die;
    bow your meek head to mortal pain,
    then take, O God, your pow’r and reign.

    Ron Wells

  • David E Stravers says:

    It’s true that the crowd’s expectations for the Messiah were misplaced. But if the celebration was completely wrong, why did Jesus tell his disciples to prepare so carefully for the procession? And why did the disciples later realize that the celebration was the fulfillment of prophecy? And why did Jesus say. “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out”? I appreciate your call “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.” But now that we know the plan, is there a way we can call out the true Hosanna? If we only keep quiet, will the pews call out?

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    I have a church that only meets on Sundays so we always combine Palm Sunday with the Passion of Good Friday to prepare us for Easter. As we act out the story with parents and children , we march to Jerusalem and pause there to read about how Jesus wept over Jerusalem, then we march to a crucifix (with Jesus still on it) and meditate about how he died for us, then back to the church for a sermon.

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I gotta say you stepped on a theological toe that gets stomped every Easter when I hear how the crowd who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday turned against Him on Good Friday. However confused the Palm Sunday crowd’s expectations may have been, they were not the ones who rushed Jesus through a kangaroo court and called for His blood, as lots of details in the Gospels make clear. The religious leaders needed an insider to get them close to Jesus when the crowds wouldn’t be around to defend their Messiah. They arrested Him at night and made sure that the deed was done before anyone knew what was up. The crowd at the religious and civil trials were evidently Jerusalem-based since they recognized a Galilean accent when they heard it and assumed it indicated a supporter of Jesus. Perhaps they included the Temple profiteers Jesus had just ticked off earlier in the week? The couple on the road to Emmaus on Sunday expressed the sad disappointment that the one they had hoped to be the Savior of Israel had been railroaded to execution by their religious leaders. I won’t bore you by listing all the details in the story that suggest Jesus’ crucifixion was carried out by a very different group from the one who welcomed Him on Palm Sunday (though I’m willing to if you’re interested : ) ), suffice it to say that the familiar trope has little textual support. I’ve often wondered if the fickle crowd story was cooked up by Christian religious leaders to discredit “popular religious excitement,” but that’s no more than a guess. Anyway, blessings on your work and your worship, and may we all remain faithful to the risen Christ, whatever our understanding of what anyone else did between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
    Regards, Dan Miller

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