Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
Drama of the Palms
One of my favorite parts of Holy Week has always been Palm Sunday. I remember as a child, the Palms and how excited I was to wave them as we walked into the church. I loved how my Mother showed me how to convert the palm into a cross. You too may say, “I have participated in this liturgy for years, but I do not understand why we have the procession of waving palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” And why does that joyous celebration abruptly change into a dramatic reading of Our Lord’s journey to the cross. Well, let me try and explain.
The Palm Procession has been a liturgical action in Holy Week, and in the Roman, Anglican, and other Christian traditions for centuries, but there is more than a reenactment ritual going on here. Many churches begin the Liturgy of the Palms with a brief sojourn, usually from the parish hall or an outdoor spot. That little walk or procession is intended to bring into the present moment, the events of the cheering crowd at Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city. We actually take our place among the crowd that day that was shouting, “All Glory Laud and Honor.”
Then, once inside the church, we re-enact the gospel narrative by having select parishioners read certain parts of the story, thus putting all of us in the roles of the characters themselves. We do all this, so that we might bring into the present moment, our place in the same crowd, and in the group of closest disciples. We join the story that begins with “All Glory Laud and Honor” and leads to “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” This liturgy makes present for us the realities of our own struggles as discipleship. Each one of us, if we are honest wrestle with this issue, “what kind of Savior it is that we seek and what symbol of our discipleship we are willing to carry; a palm or a cross.”
Palm or Cross
Let me share with you a few examples of the folks in today’s gospel who could not decide between palm or cross. In each instance of the last few days of Jesus ministry, from the Last Supper, to the disciples with Jesus in the Garden praying, to Jesus’ arrest, to Peter’s act of cutting off the ear off of one of the soldiers, to his thrice denial of Jesus, his disciples struggled with what kind of Lord they wanted to follow. Even the crowd that cheered for Jesus upon his arrival, later asked for the release of a violent insurrectionist in place of the innocent one we follow.
After their shouts of “Crucify Him” at his trial, we hear Jesus on the cross say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” As the crowd taunted the tortured savior the shouting, “You saved others, save yourself Jesus,” we hear a criminal’s plea, “ Jesus remember Me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus last words were, “Father I commend my spirit,” and then we hear a soldier’s regret for his action, “Surely, this man was innocent,” and then Jesus died.
The crowd, his disciples, and others just sitting on the sidelines debated about who Jesus was, and in their struggles, they experienced cycles of adulation, rejection, and regret. How many of us do the same? As the baptized we journey in faith with Jesus every day, but the path of our discipleship is lined with both palms and crosses, and like the crowd, we are often unsure what kind of Savior we really want.
We are not that different from those early disciples. When they shared that meal of memorial with Jesus, it was not an hour later that they were arguing about who was going to be greatest among them. They seemed to forget his teachings and warnings about self-denial and self-giving love. It was as if they forgot all that he taught them and they still had hopes of a power-wielding King, who would satisfy their own personal desires. Most Christians struggle to choose whether we want to follow a “king of the palms,” or a “king of the cross.”
To follow the “King of the Cross” means we choose the counter-cultural, arduous path of self-giving love, while rejecting the normative, tranquil path of self-satisfaction or self-preservation. When life becomes uncomfortable and we must take a stand to protect the innocent, to bring justice to the oppressed, to claim peace in the midst of chaos, or to merely claim Jesus as the Lord of our lives, we have the capacity to be like Peter, and deny our affiliation. I personally wonder sometimes, if I faced the same threat of rejection, violence, or arrest over my faith, would I be like Peter?
Imagine being There
We post-resurrection Christians hear this story each year, but we hear it from the perspective of looking back, but what if we were like those people in the crowd and we did not know the outcome of the story; what if we did not know about resurrection? I wonder if would alternatively desire a Savior who would wield power against our enemies, rather than a Savior who shows us how to love our enemies.
It is a frightening thought, but maybe we might have been the one that pounded the nails into his hands, or the one who spit in his face, or the one who denied him three times. Imagine for a moment you were in the crowd, would you have shouted “Crucify him, Crucify him.” Despite their rejection of his radical love in action, Jesus still said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
We educated, postmodern, post-resurrection Christians process with palms in hand and enact the story every year, but we need to be reminded that we too need ongoing sanctification in our lives, because each one of us must decide whether we want a humble, self-giving, serving Lord, or a Lord who serves our own desires.
The Crowd Today
Palm or a cross; the choice is always ours. Will we follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, or will we stop in the courtyard near the warm and comfortable fire, and deny him like Peter. Honestly, none of us want to go the full distance to the disgraceful death of a cross, but thanks be to God, none of us have to do so, that is because we have God’s grace.
God’s grace is the gift we merely accept. We cannot work for it, do enough to gain it, or serve in enough ministries to manipulate it. It is the free gift of love from God, and it is ours despite, how we often reject the humbled Lord, who intercedes on our behalf saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
So, which will it be, a palm or a cross? It really is an easy choice, that is if we can trust in God’s grace, rely on God’s direction, and seek God’s will and humbly pray, “Father, I nee you every day. Father, please, also forgive me; because when it comes to following you, I really DO NOT know what I am doing.”
(1) King, Michael A. “Holy Hate.” The Christian Century, vol. 124, no. 23, Nov. 2007, p. 18.