Wow. Palm Sunday again already. Our FOURTH together! It’s an interesting feast. Presumably this moment of triumphal entry toJerusalemreally happened in the earthly life of Jesus; but it serves a dramatic function in the Gospels as well, insofar as it represents the “calm before the storm.” For this one brief moment, Jesus is popular, the crowds are happy, and the apostles are riding high. If I were painting or filming the event, however, it would feel dishonest if I failed to include the Pharisees and Sadducees huddled somewhere in the background consulting together, wearing angry frowns on their faces.
A couple of tidbits I learned while “researching” this column. First, it seems that the covering of Jesus’ path – which the Gospels variously indicate was done with cloaks, rushes, and/or palm fronds – was the ancient’s world’s answer to “rolling out the red carpet.” Interestingly, it is John – the most “theological” of the four Gospels – which specifies the use of palm fronds; and these were known as a symbol of triumph and victory in Jewish tradition (cf. Leviticus 23:40).
This actually fits well with John’s holistic approach to the death and resurrection as two indispensable sides of a single coin, as seen in the deliberate ambiguity of Jesus’ repeated promise to draw all people to himself when he is “lifted up” (on the cross, from the tomb, into heaven). So, read in the larger context of the sweep of John’s Gospel, Jesus’ triumphal entry – toJerusalem, the Davidic capital, where Jesus will suffer and die – IS a triumph and a victory, as will be made clear again after his resurrection. But by putting this “victory march” on the front end, John seems to want to make sure that we “get” that the willing suffering and death of Jesus are also very much a part of Jesus’ overall triumph.
Another curiosity, which aptly illustrates how popular devotional piety mingles the “pagan” with the authentically religious, is the custom of burning “Jack-o’-Lent” figures (mentioned in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”). Apparently in many places in Europeduring the 15th, 16th, and 17th century, churches would create a straw figure and drag it around the parish streets on Ash Wednesday, stoning and abusing it. The figure would then be burned on Palm Sunday as a kind of symbolic revenge on Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus. Cultural historians suggest that an additional symbolism of the burning was almost certainly the “destruction” of the hated figure of winter to make way for the coming of Spring…
I, for one, am glad that this “Jack-o’-Lent” custom has disappeared. Why? Because I fear that it would be far too easy and convenient to make Judas (or even Winter!) the “villain of the piece.” To project the betrayal of Christ onto Judas – or the Jews, or the Romans, or any other “outside” group or power – is really to miss the point. The passion narratives of the Gospels, and the historical reality on which they are based, are archetypal and universal – they mean to show each and all of us the good, the bad, and the ugly within ourselves.
We are meant, therefore, to be shocked and distressed that many of the same individuals who wave palms and lay their cloaks down in homage to Jesus on “Palm Sunday” will very shortly be crying: “Away with him! Crucify him! We have no king but Caesar!” But if we are honest, much of our horror in the face of such fickleness is tied to our recognition of the capacity for such fickleness in ourselves. (How often do we laugh along with jokes that are hurtful and offensive, for instance, simply to avoid having the difficult conversation which would follow if we tried to intervene?)
Our liturgy itself makes this inner human conflict and tension clear. We call the feast “Palm Sunday,” which seems to place the focus on the triumphal entry; but the blessing and distribution of palms with the accompanying Gospel narrative is only a “prequel” to the real Gospel of the Mass, which is the long narrative of the Passion in its entirety. Thus, even in our liturgical celebrations this weekend, we are obliged to experience both the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” And yet, within the context of the Eucharist, we recognize the greatest of paradoxes – that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross are, when seen with faith, his greatest victory. By embracing with forgiveness the painful consequences of our human sinfulness and violence, and by embracing the seeming oblivion of our human death, Jesus, the God-Man, actually conquered sin and death once for all.
Thus we gather and celebrate – even on Palm (Passion) Sunday – because we believe that Jesus is presently risen and glorified. He is alive, and he makes himself present at our Eucharistic table, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Even in the fleeting moment of triumph, when he is greeted with “Hosannas,” he is a king who rides a donkey, not a warhorse. He is, in other words, a king of peace who triumphs through humility and selflessness.
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.