Is Palm Sunday a day of celebration, or a day of grief? The church as a whole, celebrates either or both this Sunday. Today, many churches celebrate both Palm Sunday and the rest of Holy Week during this service. Originally, we only celebrated the Kingly entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, surrounded by waving palms, shouts of happiness, and adoring fans.
Later in the week, everyone would go to church for Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. People would go again on Good Friday. They’d hear how Jesus appeared before the high priest and the governor, was whipped and taunted, and forced to carry his cross from the jail to the hill where he was crucified. They remember his death. Then, finally, on Saturday night and Sunday, the Church would celebrate the Resurrection.
But society changed, and people became less church-going. On Palm Sunday, churches began to combine the Palm Sunday celebration and the story of Jesus’ death, since many people weren’t likely to go back to church on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Because of this, Palm Sunday is kind of bi-polar. We go from one extreme to another, recognizing the great celebration of Jesus, and his torture and terrible death in the same service.
Palm Sunday is like Jesus’ Make a Wish party. By this point, Jesus has predicted several times that he will go to Jerusalem and die, but as he comes into Jerusalem, the world throws him a party. The disciples must have experienced a great mix of emotions; sadness, grief, and maybe some fear combined with pride and joy in seeing Jesus surrounded by loving crowds.
As I was thinking of this, I began to think of all the other times we hold this combination of similar emotions. I think of the party my grandparents threw for my Uncle, before he went to Vietnam, and of the times that he’d go back after being home on leave.
I think of Carol’s people in hospice, and how she talks occasionally about a couple deciding to get legally married before one of them dies. I think of families I’ve known who have dealt with cancer, or other significant diagnoses, who decide to go on a wonderful trip to celebrate, just in case they don’t get another chance.
We have a drive, not just a desire, but almost a compelling drive to celebrate goodness in the midst of darkness. When more children are killed in school shootings, and people protest because of grief and conviction that this can’t continue, there is still a kind of joy and celebration among protesters, in seeing so many people united and standing up for an important cause.
I was listening to MPR this weekend, and they were interviewing a boy who went to Parkland High School in Florida. The first day back, first responders greeted them at every school door, and therapy dogs were in the halls and classrooms. Instead of classes, the students and teachers played games. They were asked to bring checkers or Candyland or any crazy game from their childhood. They wanted the kids to talk, relax and enjoy themselves.
We need to celebrate in the midst of darkness. And that is the Spirit of God. It is that Spirit of Life that can never let death have the last word. We hear this all the time from people of faith, and I think it’s true.
“The light came into the world, and the darkness could not overcome it.” (John 1: 5) “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (Martin Luther King) “Love Wins.” It is still happening.
All four Gospels have the story of Palm Sunday. I think that’s interesting. What is the point? What do they want us to know? In Matthew, Luke, and John’s Gospels, the Palm Sunday parade ends with majesty. Matthew tells how Jesus processes through the gates of Jerusalem, straight to the temple. The temple, of course, is the center of religious worship, law, and sacrifice. It is where you meet God. The Palm Sunday procession ended in triumph. Matthew goes on to tell us how Jesus spent the next day, Monday, ‘cleansing the temple’ when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. But Mark’s Gospel is different. In Mark, the story ends quietly with a little puff of smoke. “Then he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (vs. 11) That’s Mark.
It’s not quite as triumphant as the others. So, what is Mark trying to tell us?
Maybe it’s just tenderness. Maybe it’s this mix of tragedy and celebration, or celebration In tragedy, that makes up part of the human condition – part of the Spirit of God working within us and our experiences.
Yahuda HaLevi was a famous Hebrew philosopher and poet from the Middle Ages. He was probably the most famous Hebrew poet in the Middle Ages. He was from Spain, and he lived from 1075 to 1141. He wrote other things in Arabic, but all his poems were in Hebrew. This is his poem about love and death.
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing to love.
For your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
- Yehuda HaLevi (1075 – 1141)