Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Week Reflections I - Palm Sunday

P1010005Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and for my church that means children singing and waving palm branches near the beginning of the service. A recreation of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  I imagine that this is true for many churches, of varying traditions.

Our church also reflects pretty heavily on what comes after Jesus’ triumphal entry.  While I expect that a lot of churches do this, as well, it deserves noting that the events so commemorated are traditionally located elsewhere within Holy Week, specifically on “Maundy Thursday” and “Good Friday”.  Many churches have special worship gatherings for those days (Knox does for Maundy Thursday, but encourages members to go to a multi-congregational gathering for Good Friday), but even for those churches that have separate gatherings on both Thursday and Friday, these middle-of-the-week gatherings are almost always poorly attended in comparison to the Sunday gathering.  This leaves churches with a decision to make.  Focus exclusively on the triumphal entry, leaving reflection on the Last Supper and the crucifixion to the appropriate days (Thursday and Friday, respectively), knowing that many people present on Palm Sunday won’t come to those worship events, or incorporate post-Palm Sunday elements into Palm Sunday worship so that as many people as possible will experience them.

It’s actually not a hard choice to make.  As important as Jesus’ triumphal entry is, it doesn’t hold anything like as much meaning without the understanding of what is to come.  Think about pretty much any parade you’ve ever been to.  As important as the parade is, it is almost always organized for some purpose beyond the parade itself.  In Pasadena, the Rose Parade celebrates the New Year (and, not coincidentally, the fact that Southern California has wonderful weather even at that time.  Oh, and there’s some football game going on, too).  Macy's Thanksgiving Parade celebrates, well, Thanksgiving.  As an example of a parade not tied to a holiday, Pasadena also has an annual "Doo Dah" parade celebrating eccentricity and non-conformity.  The point is, a parade is seldom an end unto itself.  For Christians, the meaning of the Palm Sunday parade inevitably points to Jesus’ passion.

But let’s take a step back for a moment.  What about the meaning of the “Palm Sunday Parade” for those who first witnessed it?  While Jesus may have known what was to come, the people shouting “Hosanna” certainly didn’t.  What were they celebrating?

The shout of “Hosanna” gives us the clue.  This is a word that means “save us!”  It’s generally understood that at least some of those crying “Hosanna” had an expectation that Jesus would save the Jewish people in some military or political fashion.  It is obvious to those of us with the hindsight of history that this is not what actually happened.

“Hosanna” is still the appropriate thing to shout out to Jesus on Palm Sunday, if perhaps precisely because of what happened in the week that followed.  I’ll try to write more about that in the posts that follow this week.  For now, it’s enough to say that, when the people asked Jesus to save them, Jesus definitely did.

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