Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday: The celebration of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem the Sunday before Easter. He arrived on a donkey (to symbolize peace) and was welcomed with celebration and adoration, coats and palm branches laid on the path before him. 

When we drop Dane off at his Sunday School class, there are little circles of green construction paper all over the floor. It takes me a moment to realize that these are meant to be palm branches, and that (of course) today is Palm Sunday.

His teacher holds out her arms, and he leans, cautious, into me. “Come in!” she says. “We’re jumping on the palm branches because we’re so happy Jesus came to town!” I put him down and he whispers, “Leave the door open,” before he walks tentatively in.

I have vague memories of actual palm fronds in my early years, the heaviness of those leaves collected on one long branch. I remember the church sanctuary, ablaze in all the waving green, the lobby littered with fallen leaves.

But this morning, the church bulletin is bordered with red droplets, and it is already time for all that talk of death. I am jarred by it. In one moment, we are greeting each other with smiles and small-talk; in the next, we are watching Mel’s Passion of the Christ.

The DVD is cued up to those last moments on the cross, and Jesus is already bloodied, already battered, one eye swollen shut. He lifts his eyes to heaven and commends his Sprit to God, gone before I’ve even had a chance to hold out my palm branch and welcome him.

The pastor comes up, “Whew!” He says, and it comes out Southern. “What does that do to your heart?” And if I’m honest, I will say Not what it should.

It is Holy Week, a term that I’ve only recently learned to speak. In other incarnations of Christianity, it is an entire week of tradition, liturgy, waiting, sinking into the heaviness of it all. But here, in the evangelical world, we just do the highlights reel.

We used to include Palm Sunday, but now it’s mostly just the Two Big Ones. Good Friday and Easter. Death and Resurrection. Two sides of one coin.

Every year, pastors draw it out in detail, trying to communicate the excruciating pain of it. Crucifixion. Those nails. All those woven thorns. (In youth group one year, a plucky volunteer was even asked to stand, his arms outstretched, holding two folding chairs to demonstrate the exhaustion, the struggle.)

Imagine, they say.

And I try. But there is so much pressure to let this image penetrate my heart to the point of emotion, of understanding. The year The Passion comes out, I watch it all the way through, glad, in a way, for the fact that it pushes me to tears.

But in the broader Christian tradition, Palm Sunday is the beginning of a week that sends us spiraling toward the deepest dark…and then back out of it.

It seems poetic to begin by holding so many cut palm branches, imperceptibly dying in our hands. It is a kind of grace that we are not thrown straight into the dark but rather given space to move into it. To let ourselves be moved.

I don’t know what this looks like, really. In spite of Holy Week, my life moves along the grooved paths of daily routines. Maybe it’s just noticing the uncooked steak, blood red on my cutting board. The leaves shooting from the lilac bushes. The tulips pushing through broken seeds and hard ground.

The sun is falling straight out of the sky at eight o’clock every night. One thing ends, another begins.

And of course, they’re important: those anguished moments on that lonely hill. But we’ll get there soon enough. First there’s a meal. There’s God on the ground, washing our feet. There’s a garden and a prayer and a fearful, faithless kiss.

First there are all these metaphors, all of these images. There are hot, yeast rolls torn open at dinner, and they too have something to speak into all of this.

We pick the kids up after church, and Dane has made a painting for Palm Sunday. His small, green handprints cover the page: one dark and bold, the rest smeared and abstract.

It looks like applause, like palm trees waving.

It looks like the beginning of the best story you’ve ever heard.

29 thoughts on “Palm Sunday

  1. Addie, once again, I love it. I relate on so many levels. I want to feel Jesus’ pain, but I often try to force it.

    “It seems poetic to begin by holding so many cut palm branches, imperceptibly dying in our hands. It is a kind of grace that we are not thrown straight into the dark but rather given space to move into it. To let ourselves be moved.” Yes, yes. I think this is often my problem. I need space.

    As I was writing my post for today, I started wondering whether we push ourselves too hard to relate to Jesus. Isn’t that why He died? Because He had the ability to run towards what we all run away from? Maybe the fact that it is so hard for us to relate is what should make us reflect on how much His sacrifice was needed.

    1. I agree Stephanie. Sometimes when I am trying to connect to what Jesus must have experienced, I feel that Holy Spirit voice inside me reminding me that he SAVED me, meaning went through it so I wouldn’t have to. Living in the awfulness of it only takes away from the freedom he went through it all so that I could experience in the first place. I think these are images that are to be visited so that we understand God’s profound love for us. But we don’t have to live in them. Our permanent residence is in this life, right here.

    2. Such great points, Stephanie and Deb. I’ve always felt that kind of pressure to somehow internalize the pain of the cross and let it move my heart, but it feels like the more I try to do that, the less I am able to. I love what you said about how “the fact that it is so hard for us to relate is what should make us reflect on how much His sacrifice is needed.”

    3. interesting. I suppose my basic response to your words would be, “why would you want to feel Jesus’s pain”. I cannot imagine it. Having my back shredded by leather thongs with metal pieces fixed in them and three inch thorns ‘bashed’ into my head …

      … but more than that I do not think I could bear the pain of carrying the whole worlds’ sin and Father God not there for me.

      For me I’ll just give Him my thanks and offer myself to Him again knowing that Father God will accept me because of what the Lord Jesus did for me. I’ll think of his love and faithfulness to me.

      1. Thanks for adding this Hilary. I’ve been thinking about this a little more this weekend, and sometimes all the talk of the exact methodology of crucifixion, trying to get you to imagine the pain and internalize it feels like a cheap trick. It’s a quick method to get you to feel the horror. When really, I think the truth of it: “carrying the whole world’s sins and Father God not there…” takes time. You have to sit with that. You have to be quiet with it. It’s hard to understand. It’s not concrete like nails in flesh. It’s something mysterious and big.

        Anyway, I loved your conclusion. “I’ll think of his love and faithfulness.” Thanks so much for adding that.

    1. Thanks, Shawn. I was reading something in John in which Jesus was talking about the things to come, and he spoke of himself as a seed. I’m sure I’ve read it before, but it struck me differently this year with its bizarrely early Minnesota spring. Underneath all of this new life, there must also be death.

  2. Wow. This made me look at Holy Week from a different perspective.

    “And of course, they’re important: those anguished moments on that lonely hill. But we’ll get there soon enough. First there’s a meal. There’s God on the ground, washing our feet. There’s a garden and a prayer and a fearful, faithless kiss.”

    Wow.

    1. Thank you, Carra. Yeah…I’d never really thought about it much until Sunday when it felt so…off…to celebrate Good Friday a week early. I think there is something to the working your way into it…some important reason why that week was so fully drawn in the Bible.

  3. I left the liturgical church as a 3 year old and joined the evangelical church. Thus began my “release” from meaningless ritual, and my annual review of “the highlight reel.” I always understood it to mean that I (my believing mother really, since my father was an abusive agnostic) had chosen better. The less man-made version. The more unadulterated version. I thought “Lent” was the stuff in my belly-button. So while many of you have been fasting for a while now, I’m going to from now til Sunday.

    1. I thought it was interesting and compelling, what you said about “man-made” vs. “unadulterated.” I imagine that for some (particularly those who come from liturgical backgrounds that they did not resonate with), the evangelical world feels that way. Free and organic… I think that this was probably particularly true when it first started out. But we’ve been living there for so long now that we’ve filled it up too with our own man-made structures. (40 Days to the life of purpose or to a life “in the Word”! This conference! That worship experience!)

      And those structures can be helpful. For the person who’s never picked up a Bible in her life and is intimidated, a book teaching her some easy ways to read and understand is just the man-made structure she might need. For me, struggling in the midst of my busy, chaotic life, this idea of “Holy Week” is a meaningful structure for me to connect with the story, with Christ himself.

  4. I too remember “Every year, pastors draw it out in detail, trying to communicate the excruciating pain of it. Crucifixion. Those nails. All those woven thorns.” And I think they are missing the more important suffering. After all, we can call up lots of examples from history of men and women willing to suffer great torture for an important cause or for principle. Heck, I could probably do it.

    What I couldn’t face, and I believe I’ll never have to face it, is being completely abandoned by God. As crappy as our life might be, even if we were being tortured like Jesus was tortured, we would still be living in God’s world. When Jesus prays in the garden “please don’t make me go through this” the “this” is not the torture, it is his becoming sin for us, becoming all our crap, such that God the Father has to turn away, has to abandon him. I am not sure that any other human ever has or ever will face complete abandonment by God. I don’t know what that could be like. I can only imagine parables of it, like those of children who are abandoned by parents, or spouses abandoned by spouses. That is the Good Friday sermon.

    Easter sermon is God raising Jesus back to life again, restoring the abandoned one. It doesn’t make me dance lightly over the abandonment, as if it were only a moment, and in the morning (take two aspirin) everything will be fine again. Here, I think I am channeling Kierkegaard in one of his representations of the binding of Isaac story in his Fear & Trembling.

  5. I started to fast two nights ago. Not a Lenten thing, really, but, well, sort of, I guess. From coffee, dessert, TV, sex, alcohol, soda. I’m not sure why. I was sitting on the edge of my bed late one night, talking to Jesus, and I think He suggested it. On Easter Sunday I’m going to lay on my couch watching the Master’s Golf Tourney eating and drinking in celebration of the Bridegroom’s life! And boy do I appreciate the price paid for my unworthiness…sin…self…and I have a humble hope for which I am genuinely grateful.

  6. I could also never relate to the obsession with the gruesome details of the crucifixion. I’ll admit up front that I haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s movie, nor do I plan to. I do recall reading more than one review that likened the crucifixion scenes to “torture porn” or some similar term.

    I ran across this column yesterday written by a minister from my particular denomination which framed a lot of the problems I have with the glorification of torture that I see in the Easter season.

    http://blog.timesunion.com/trumbore/rejecting-redemptive-violence/1021/

    (including the first paragraph here)

    “Let me be crystal clear from the start.

    I admire Jesus’ courage going to Jerusalem to take a prophetic stand against unjust, unfair and uncompassionate religious practices. Jesus knew he would be putting his life at risk as he overturned the tables of the money changers. He faced death with dignity. All this I affirm while strongly objecting to the belief in redemptive violence. What kind of a God would find satisfaction in Jesus’ torture and cruel execution by Roman authorities? Believing his death paid any price for human sin warps Jesus’ teachings. Redemption comes through love not through violence. Belief in the myth of redemptive violence poisons everyone rather than saves anyone.”

    The column mentions a book which sounds fascinating. My local library has a copy on order, and I just put myself on the hold list for it.

    “Saving Paradise” by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker

    Description reproduced from: http://savingparadise.net/about/

    “When Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker began traveling the Mediterranean world in search of art depicting the dead, crucified Jesus, they discovered something that traditional histories of Christianity and Christian art had underplayed or sought to explain away: it took Jesus Christ a thousand years to die.

    During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence in a vibrant world. He appears as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder. But he is never dead. When he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected. The world around him is ablaze with beauty. These are images of paradise—paradise in this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God.

    But once Jesus perished, dying was virtually all he seemed able to do.

    Saving Paradise offers a fascinating new lens on the history of Christianity, from its first centuries to the present day, and asks how its early vision of beauty evolved into one of torture. In tracing the changes in society and theology that marked the medieval emergence of images of Christ crucified, Saving Paradise exposes the imperial strategies embedded in theologies of redemptive violence and sheds new light on Christianity’s turn to holy war. It reveals how the New World, established through Christian conquest and colonization, is haunted by the loss of a spiritual understanding of paradise here and now.”

    1. Dave,
      There are assumptions we make that turn the perspective of these things. When you said…
      “Jesus knew he would be putting his life at risk as he overturned the tables of the money changers. He faced death with dignity.”
      …it assumed that His life was ever “at risk.” Jesus strode into death. Nobody took His life from Him. He laid it down. Do you think that changes our perspective on the idea of “torture porn?” If Jesus didn’t “risk” anything, but acted as the Director of the unfolding drama of His own redemptive death, does that alter our understanding of what you’ve called “redemptive violence?”

    1. You posted your apology while I was writing my response, so I didn’t see it until after I posted. 🙂

  7. Neal, first of all, I was actually quoting that article, so I didn’t say what you attributed to me personally, but I do agree with it.

    I don’t think it matters at all who “chose” his death. I understand the argument you are trying to make when you ask if he was ever “at risk” since you believe it was predestined to happen. (*) I just don’t think that it matters. In the end he died a violent and painful death and that is what is considered the redemptive act.

    I always thought that the focus on the violent end turns the whole story around in the wrong way. The focus should be on the message not the messenger. My gut reaction is that it becomes uncomfortably close to a golden calf situation for me. What is being venerated while admittedly compelling seems false.

    I’ll quote this section of that article again, since it sums up the notion that I was originally trying to get across.

    “What kind of a God would find satisfaction in Jesus’ torture and cruel execution by Roman authorities? Believing his death paid any price for human sin warps Jesus’ teachings. Redemption comes through love not through violence. Belief in the myth of redemptive violence poisons everyone rather than saves anyone.”

    (*) I have to confess that I’m operating on what I assume is a radically different belief of who/what Jesus was than everyone else here. We’ll just agree to disagree. I’m not here to stir up controversy, I read this blog because I’m coming from a very different frame of reference, and I’m always interested in seeing things from other perspectives.

    1. Dave, I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts to offer to this discussion at the moment, but I wanted to just take a second to say that regardless of what you believe about Jesus or about Christianity, I’m glad you’re here. You always offer great insights and I appreciate what you add to the discussion. Thanks for all the challenging thoughts and for helping me to think more deeply.

    2. So I attempted to post a comment here twice and neither of them found their way onto the blog. Hmmm. I’m going to give it a third try sometime today…

  8. Thanks, Dave, for your gracious response. I decided to hold comment on this key paragraph, until I received a first response:

    “What kind of a God would find satisfaction in Jesus’ torture and cruel execution by Roman authorities? Believing his death paid any price for human sin warps Jesus’ teachings. Redemption comes through love not through violence. Belief in the myth of redemptive violence poisons everyone rather than saves anyone.”

    To this I would answer: The kind of God you can trust for His universally consistent standard and perfect provision that never waivers in love, justice, and efficacy for the sake of those whom He created in His image, and into whom He breathed the breath of life!

    If “satisfaction” has two definitions: 1) pleasure, and 2) completion, then 1) God took absolutely none in the unjust violence against His beloved (it is truly repulsive to me and to you as well – Mel came close to portraying the full brutality), but 2) God was fully satisfied in the qualified, substitutionary sacrifice. Justice was satisfied. And we all have a pretty keen sense of justice, although we’d rather have the privilege to apply it randomly rather than universally. For example, many of the loudest voices for justice in the Trayvon Martin case boast an equal opposition to the biblical gospel of the human need for a sacrificial lamb (which is based on that same justice value).

    I believe our abhorrence with such things stems from our tendency to minimize the full weight of both divine holiness and human depravity. Our longing is to believe that we humans are a little better than we actually are. At the same time we are more comfortable with a version of “divine holiness” that is more like “above-average-human” than its actual incomprehensible and infinitely demanding version. If either are minimized then you are right, the cross is foolishness.

    I’m fascinated by what feels like a contradiction to me: “honoring” humanity by over-estimating our inherent goodness ends in our ultimate dishonor, while honoring God as wholly “other” and in every way “higher” than us actually exalts humanity, through humility, higher than any other world view might claim.

    Jesus was clear on the union of love and violence: John 15:13 – “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” And Paul made clear the same sentiment in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    I would much rather continue to dialogue than “agree to disagree,” but I do understand that we may be approaching this from different perspectives on Scripture. Massive amounts of central teaching must be denied in order to dismiss the direct and indirect illusions to “redemption violence” in the text. I loved the historical/art observations of your researchers concerning the early and later church and its relationship to life and death! To leave Jesus on the cross is tragic. But to deny its requirement is dangerous…no, worse. But our invitation is to live in the grace of life through the power of the resurrection, and that’s what they observed!

    Still, the biblical record is consistent that Jesus’ crucifixion is not only clarifying (rather than warping), but is also life-giving (rather than poisoning), when fully embraced. Drinking from the cup of His death is as controversial to you as it was to the original hearers of the same message (“…eat my flesh, drink my blood…”), right?

    That the apostles would all invite us through their modeling and teaching to adopt the pouring out of our lives for the sake of others confirms that both 1) radical following in the cause of the gospel would require our certain spiritual death, and possible physical death, and 2) that our death would come at the hands of those who otherwise reject redemptive violence as barbaric and/or esteeming of true humanness! Intriguing, isn’t it?

    Finally, your comment — “The focus should be on the message not the messenger.” I would respectfully edit this as I would Brock & Parker’s comment (“Redemption comes through love not through violence.”) I would be inclusive rather than exclusive. I would substitute “and” for “not” in both cases. Therein lies the true power and uniqueness of the true Christian gospel. It’s a mystery and has always been a rock of offense and foolishness to most. It is the person of Jesus the Christ, whose claim to full divinity got Him arrested then, and would get Him institutionalized today, that matters. His message was revolutionary, but if He is just another cult leader, then that message is discounted to anyone with intellectual integrity.

    And so, in a context of a compelling movement toward a violent uprising, ending in a violent death, Jesus strode, inviting His followers to the same violent end, for the sake of love. In the clear exaltation of what made this Jesus stand out from every and all other religiously-oriented figures in history, He issued a call to Peter. That call is our call.

    Matthew 16:15-20, “…who do you say that I am?” And then immediately goes on to predict the requirement of His violent end, our sharing in the same risk of violence as His followers, and its certain result in the fulfilled kingdom in 16:21-28, life to all, but only through death…redemptive violence!

  9. Neal, a very thought out response. I’ll try to continue the conversation if I can come up with something that isn’t the length of a novel.

    Although, it just may be a detailed list of the differences in our theologies that will show why we’ll never agree. All those central teachings that you refer to. If that’s the case, hopefully you won’t want me burned at the stake as a heretic after reading such a response.

    But, I do like the conversation….

      1. Neal,

        Just so you know that I didn’t forget my promise to try and respond to your last post….

        I tried writing a response a couple of times, but each time it quickly degenerated into a “you said you believe this, but I believe in this completely opposite position” rant that went nowhere in the end. I was embarrassed to read it, let alone write it.

        I’m seeing too big of a gap in our core theologies. Foundation level stuff that changes how everything is viewed. I’m a Unitarian, which means that I what I believe who Jesus was, is completely different than you believe. (based on what I can deduce from what you’ve written here)

        To take the easy way out and quote the Wikipedia definition of Unitarian:

        “Unitarians adhere to strict monotheism, and maintain that Jesus was a great man and a prophet of God, perhaps even a supernatural being, but not God himself. They believe Jesus did not claim to be God, and that his teachings did not suggest the existence of a triune God. Unitarians believe in the moral authority, but not necessarily the divinity of Jesus. Their theology is thus opposed to the trinitarian theology of other Christian denominations.”

        And there you have it. I’ve enjoyed this little conversation. Like I’ve said, I’ve posted here a few times but even though I know I’m going against the current with what I post, I still find the comments from everyone on all the articles very insightful. I guess I’m just a sucker for hearing about others people’s searches for meaning and community, no matter where they end up. Especially if I don’t personally believe the same thing.

        Also, once again I don’t mean to be a ripple in the pond. Addie, you can feel free to tell me to knock it off if you want to.

        David

        1. I am grateful, David, for any conversation. You have well pointed out: belief is as individual as anything in human being. A long time ago I began to relax and trust that God would draw people into an accurate awareness of His person and how to genuinely connect to Him. Do I think what I believe is perfectly wired? No. I too am being drawn. And I’ve become painfully aware that my faith is a process of discovery. I just want to make sure that I don’t create a god I’m comfortable with, that is, created in my image, but taken on His terms. Keep seeking and I will too.

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