Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

After the Parade….What?

Palm Sunday is an ambiguous moment in the church year. 

On the one hand it recalls a moment of real triumph in the ministry of Jesus, as an enthusiastic crowd of pilgrims, journeying to Jerusalem to observe Passover, see in the presence of the Galilean prophet the possibility of a messianic moment – maybe, just maybe God will act to set his people free.  And look: here he comes, riding on a donkey, just as the prophet Zechariah foresaw.  Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

However, we all know what comes next.  Jesus does and says things that do not match the crowd’s expectations.  He runs up against those in the leadership who are managing the very delicate relationship with the Roman occupiers, and soon the Romans themselves are taking notice.  In very short order things get dangerous, and then beyond dangerous to catastrophic.  What to do?  Where to turn?  The adoring crowds turn ugly and flee.  The official leadership maneuvers to maintain its détente with Rome.  The Roman Governor looks for the most expedient solution, and true to character comes down with an iron fist.  The disciples and much of the populace look on aghast as the one who entered the Holy City in triumph is dragged outside the walls and nailed to a cross.

There is something within us that wants to lay down our palm branches, pick up some hot cross buns and run straight to Easter sunrise.  And many of us do.  Yet we cannot if we are to follow Jesus this week.  Back in the middle of the last century, Harry Emerson Fosdick reminded his parishioners at New York’s Riverside Church, that if we would consider ourselves Christians we cannot hop from Palm Sunday to Easter.  He put it very simply, saying, “No cross, no Christ.”

I received the same message as a young boy in Hampden, Massachusetts at the Federated Church.  Every week the Sunday School would gather for a short time of worship before class.  Often Mrs. Bump would bring an easel and big crayons, and as she told us a story from the Bible, would draw the scenes for us.  One year, I can’t remember what grade I was in, she told us about Palm Sunday, drawing Jesus on a donkey, with children waving palm branches as he entered Jerusalem.  Then she grew very serious, and described how the very people who welcomed him were disappointed in what he was doing, and how the Romans got very angry.  She then drew Jesus on the cross, with the sky turning black.  But she didn’t leave it there.  Knowing that we would not have Sunday School on Easter, she went ahead to tell the story of the resurrection, picturing an empty tomb, Jesus shining in white, and disciples rejoicing.  The telling was very simple, without much detail, but at least for me, it fixed forever the events from Palm Sunday to Good Friday and on to Easter as a single narrative that couldn’t be broken up and still be the real story.

So Lent comes around to Holy Week, and we gather palm fronds at the church door.  In our house, my wife will use the palms to weave crosses, which we’ll send on to our children and grandchildren, thereby helping to keep the story whole.  May you walk the whole path this week, and may you find your faith renewed and strengthened.

Howard MacMullen
© March 2013

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