Sunday, April 13, 2014

Re-Post: The Irony of Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is, in my opinion, the most ironic Holy Day in the Christian calendar. It is strange if you think about it. Holy Week is generally a very somber and sad time. It is a time when Christians focus on the Pain of God, as revealed in the last days and death of Jesus of Nazareth. But that week begins with a celebration, a joyful day known as Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday is a time when Christians celebrate Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had been preaching in the countryside and the smaller towns for a while, and now He set His sights on the very center of Jewish life, Jerusalem. Jesus' ministry really combined two seemingly opposing movements that were around during His time. There was the zealot-like movement of those in the cities that sought to overthrow Roman power through force. These were bandits and revolutionaries, who often incited violence and saw themselves as holy warriors in the style of the Maccabees. Then there were those who thought that the Kingdom of God could come by divine power alone, and so eschewed military and political power. Most of these formed communities in the wilderness and desert, and avoided political conflicts.

Jesus was different in that He held to the ideology of the desert messianists, but was politically active in that He challenged the political order of the day, and in the very heart of the cities and towns. Thus, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was a political statement. When people saw Him entering the city, they thought that His time of preaching was over, and that He was about to call for a military uprising against Rome. The palms laid at His feet were symbols of military victory. They saw the possibility that Jesus was indeed the messiah, but they could only figure on a messiah who was going to take power by force, who was going to be the ultimate divine warrior-king. This is the moment that Palm Sunday celebrates.

Of course Jesus was making as statement with His entry into Jerusalem, He was even deliberately provoking the political-military powers of His day to action, but He was NOT calling for the military and political upheaval that the people thought He was. Their laying down of palms and their celebrations are, then, in the Bible, ironic. They celebrate the coming of the messiah, but they have no idea as to what that really means. So there is something strangely sad behind their celebration. It is the celebration of people who don't 'get it'. As soon as the people around Jesus realize what is really going on, they all but abandon Him. The crowd, denied the revenge they so wanted, turn on Jesus. Their earlier celebration, then, betrays the very attitude that would lead to Jesus' demise. The celebration, the palms, all of it, is not really something to be celebrated, it is something to be mourned. For it is the revelation of the human inability to really 'get it' when it comes to God. We desire control, power, and the use of the world's own devices to mete out justice. God comes to suffer with His people, to empty Himself, and to make of Himself a servant, who refuses to engage in the devil's games, and overcomes only through love and humility.

Yet Christians do celebrate the day. We take up palm branches, which symbolize a military victory that never materialized and indeed if it had would've robbed Jesus of all of His real divine power. We smile and laugh WITH the people of Jerusalem, a people who never really 'got it'. Might this not indicate that we, too, don't really 'get it'? Whether or not it does, one thing is clear to me: the irony of the passage is preserved. For the irony today is that Christians cannot detect the irony. They adopt the triumphalism of the moment uncritically. I wonder what the day would look like if we truly understood the moment it celebrates?

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