Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of an eight day period
called Holy Week, which includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and
separate it out into individual celebrations on different days, Christians tend
to think of this all as one ongoing event - a single event with many parts. It
is the most Holy time of the Christian year. It should be noted that Holy Week,
like the week-long celebration of Passover, is shaped by reflecting on the Passover
and Exodus event of the Hebrew people. So much so that Jesus is often referred
to as the Paschal Lamb of the Pesach, the Passover, the blood of which saves
the Hebrew people from the Angel of Death in Egypt. Jesus’
death on a Roman cross is believed to have been salvific for the whole world.
One Sunday Jesus
enters Jerusalem through one of its eight gates, The Golden Gate. According to
Jewish tradition the Shekhinah or Divine Presence used to appear at this gate,
and it was believed that the future messiah who would rescue Jerusalem from
occupation by Rome would enter this gate. After 70ce, the gate, the Temple and
all of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans quelling a rebellion of zealots.
interesting to note that the present gate may have been built in the 520s CE as
part of Justinian’s re-building program, or perhaps in
the 7th century by Byzantine artisans employed by the Umayyad khalifs. The
Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sealed it in 1541, whether for
defensive reasons or to prevent the messiah’s entrance into the
city nobody will ever know.
In any event,
Jesus chooses just this gate to enter to make a religious and political
statement, and to begin his confrontation of the religious and political
authorities in Jerusalem. Whether or not he was making a claim to be the
messiah no one knows for sure, but it would be in people’s minds at the time
that perhaps he was.
I believe, is a bit of political satire poking fun at the kinds of pomp and
circumstance of the kind that the emperor and his functionary officials would
demand whenever they entered a city in the empire. But instead of riding a
mighty white steed, or the four-horse chariot of the emperor, we find Jesus on
a donkey - similar to the one that brought his mother Mary, or Miriam, to
Bethlehem back when he was born. A humble hard working beast of burden. The
crowd, we can imagine, are the am ha’aretz, the People of the Land:
farmers, fishermen, poor people, widows, orphans, and all those people who were
walled out of cities and towns like Jerusalem as being unclean, but were the
very people Jesus spent time with; the people he healed; the people he ate
meals with; people who were without political or religious standing.
The am ha’aretz
were in many ways like the dalits or untouchables in India. In America we simply
call them street people, or homeless.
So this is
the crowd shouting Hosanna as Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. They are
waving branches from trees and spreading them on the road. Since the most prevalent
trees in Israel to this day are date palm trees, most likely these were
branches of palm, thus the name Palm Sunday. It is believed by many that the
forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was a date palm tree. We can make of that
what we will.
this his triumphal entry, but in reality it begins a slowly unfolding but
steady march to the scaffold that ends with crucifixion on a Roman cross -
perhaps the cruelest of all punishments handed out by the Empire of Rome.
outside the Golden Gate are those people being crushed by the severe occupation
of Rome, harsh taxation, and even discrimination by the religious authorities
in Jerusalem who were on the payroll of the aristocracy and the Roman Empire.
This was a desperate demonstration, one that all onlookers had to view as
hopeless. And indeed, by Friday afternoon it would look just that - the mock
prince who rode in on a donkey would be hanging dead on the cross. Little did
anyone imagine the rest of the story - that one day his followers and their
faith would take over the Empire. Jesus and the am ha’aretz literally
changed the world with this tiny, non-violent demonstration of theirs.
So I find
Palm Sunday to be a time to meditate on just what sorts of small and hopeless
gestures or demonstrations might we participate in to change the world. In June
1982 I took part in the largest demonstration ever to take place in New York
City to call for an end to Nuclear Arms. Nearly a million people gathered in
and around Central Park from all over the United States and around the world.
Although we still live under the specter of Nuclear Holocaust, millions more
were moved by this demonstration, and today we have people actively engaged in
arms reduction treaties and agreements to begin to stop the manufacture of
weapons grade radioactive materials.
As we reflect
on this day, think of the people outside the gate to Jerusalem. Think of all
those people today without hope and without resources, and no one to advocate
on their behalf. And then think of one small gesture or activity or group you
might work with to one day change the world. The change the people shouting
Hosannah were hoping for did not come in their lifetimes, but the change did
come. Each of us can be part of that change. Palm Sunday is a time to take this
to heart and begin to think: what can I do to make the world a better place.
Like the people outside the city of Jerusalem that Sunday morning long ago, you
may set in motion a change that will indeed make the world a better and safer
place for all people. Hosanna! Blessed are they who come in the name of the