Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm Sunday

In the Christian tradition, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of an eight day period called Holy Week, which includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.

Although we 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.

It is 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.

What unfolds, 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.

Some call 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.

The people 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 Lord!


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