It usually bothers me that the Passion story is the central Gospel read in many churches on Palm Sunday. Of course most of them start with a procession of palm leaves, but the rest of the service focuses on the coming week. Seen one way, this makes sense: There are no more Sunday services before Good Friday, so the Palm Sunday service is the easiest way to have the whole community refocus on the Passion — which in turn means that Easter’s service can be all, and only, about the Resurrection, with the horrors of Thursday night and Friday all in the past.
But I don’t like to rush ahead to the Passion so fast; I would rather pay more attention, as the centerpiece of the service, to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem:
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
When you stop to think about this, this is remarkable. This was not a time of mass communication. Jesus was an itinerant preacher who had spent most of his time in what amounted to the hinterlands. He had no title, no wealth, little formal social standing. Yet there he was, entering the city that effectively was second only to Rome itself as the center of civilization, with throngs of people hailing his arrival. This was no ordinary occurrence.
For word of mouth to spread so strongly is testament (no pun intended) to the stunning nature of Jesus’ ministry. His teachings were unique and, dare we say it, radical. More than that, his practice of healings — not just healings, but miracles — was beyond the upper range of what we today call “buzzworthy.”
They had to be buzzworthy. They had to be amazing. Otherwise, he would have entered Jerusalem like almost any other pilgrim, little noticed and uncelebrated.
For those who doubt the miracles, Palm Sunday is substantial evidence that they actually occurred. No matter how powerful a preacher’s message was, a message alone — especially one of radical self-giving that promised few earthly rewards — would not have been likely to create such a hullabaloo, absent the stories of his helping the lame walk, the blind see and even the dead rise.
Note that the historicity of the triumphal entry is little in doubt. Very few of the occurrences of Jesus’ life appear in all four Gospels; this is one of them. All the Gospel accounts of Palm Sunday are tremendously similar. This is not a tale that most skeptics can easily attribute to literary license.
All of which leads us… well, where, exactly?
Let me suggest this: It should lead us to place ourselves in the shoes of those who spread the palms for Jesus. It should lead us to a place of wonder and of celebration. Even before the Passion, and even before the Resurrection and the redemption it offers all of us, we should recognize the singularity of Jesus’ presence here among us. God, the Creator of us all, the Creator not just of us but of our whole universe, came down to Planet Earth to live among us. Even before the Resurrection, this should leave us — well, to use another modern word, it should leave us gobsmacked.
This is why I wish the entire service should center on the Palm Sunday story — because it helps us focus not on Christ the sufferer or Christ the Risen, but on Christ among us. Christ, as spirit, should be among us always, a part of all we do. We should act in such a way — and we should rejoice.