Reflections on Palm Sunday
Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Easter Week. Though perhaps the name does not spring as readily to the mind as some dates on the Christian calendar such as Christmas Day, Good Friday or Easter Sunday, it is, nevertheless, one of the important festivals in that calendar. The day is named as the anniversary of the ceremonial entrance by Jesus and his disciples into Jerusalem. It is an early recorded example of a familiar modern phenomena, the demonstration march.
The modern “demo” as it has come to be called is variously a protest, a publicity event, a mark of sympathy, a display of, to use the modern jargon, solidarity. It maybe meticulously organised. At other times it is an assembly which is loosely planned. Occasionally it is a spontaneous gathering.
It is doubtful that the events of the original “Palm Sunday” were carefully planned beforehand. It seems to have been a more casual occasion. However, the entry into Jerusalem was certainly an exercise in publicity, which advertised a cause. Not drawing attention to the group’s beliefs in the aggressive, confrontational manner of so many modern demonstrations, but a joyous expression of exuberance. The occasion was one with a carnival atmosphere. Smiles and laughter must have been present both among the participants and the on-lookers. They were on the way to Jerusalem, the Jewish equivalent of the Moslem “Mecca”, to celebrate a special date in their Jewish calendar, the Feast of the Passover.
Jesus rode upon the most humble of all beasts of burden, an ass. G.K. Chesterton in his poem, “The Donkey” points out that this animal, chosen to carry Jesus on the journey, was an ugly, oft derided and abused creature. A central tenet of Jesus’s message was that of humility. It was therefore in keeping that no prancing Arab stallion bore Jesus. He did not ride in a carriage. No uniformed escort formed any part of the procession. Simply a submissive, unprepossessing mule was commandeered. An animal which Chesterton avers now carries a secret, and treasures a triumphal memory.
The escort were ordinary men, armed only with leaves plucked from the palm trees; waved, not with menace but as banners in an expression of delight, as they chanted in high spirits. It was a holiday atmosphere, and no doubt good-natured raillery was exchanged with passers-by.
At the time the Jewish peoples’ religious observances were controlled by all-powerful priests and Pharisees, who laid down in detail the way Jews should conduct their lives. Scribes studied minutely the text of the holy scrolls. Jesus saw all of these groups as becoming concerned increasingly with the detail of the letter, rather than with the spirit of the broad message.
Many centuries after the time in which Jesus lived and preached, a British politician commented on the corruption that accompanies power. “All power corrupts,” he proclaimed, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The power the religious establishment exercised over the lives of others had, Jesus stated or implied, corrupted those who wielded that power.
His was a revolutionary message against a powerful company of men. As with all establishments down the ages, its members deeply resented criticism. As we read the gospels it becomes abundantly clear that the popularity Jesus enjoyed was among the ordinary people. The hatred and fear engendered was among the ruling Jews residing in the synagogues and to be found in the temple hierarchy.
Jesus was scathingly critical of much he saw in the Jewish leadership, particularly that in Jerusalem and centred on the temple. The commercialising of the temple precincts by money changers, and others hawking wares; the ostentation, arrogance and hypocrisy of the Pharisees; the unbending strictness of the interpretation of law; the absence of a culture of forgiveness.
I have no doubt that Jesus was acutely aware of the enmity his criticisms and alternative philosophy aroused. He knew full well that ultimately there would be retaliation in reaction to his censure. It is equally probable that the cheering, high spirited disciples did not appreciate the strength of the opposition which was being marshalled against them. The destination that lay at the end of the road they were taking was hidden from them. If they had realised the danger ahead, possibly some would have turned back. Certainly the mood would have been muted rather than celebratory. But Jesus kept his thoughts to himself, and did nothing to dampen the optimistic mood of his followers.
It is ironic that a preacher whose theme was one of love should be an instrument whereby hatred and fear was aroused. “Love your neighbour”, he enjoined. Shortly the mob would respond “Crucify him”.
But then the story of Palm Sunday and the days that followed is one of stark contrasts. It began in expectation, and was to end in tragedy. The disciples hailed Jesus as king, yet the steed he rode was an ass. The mood in the procession was one of elation and joy; it was shortly to change to grief and despair. They were a band of trusting comrades, yet treachery was conceived and festered in their midst. They marched in as a close-knit group, but they would leave as a scattered army. They were an all-male group, yet central to the Easter story is a role played by women. They were all Jews, yet the world-wide acceptance of their message would be among the gentiles.
In many respects the Easter story is a description the history of the human race regardless of time and place. The ingredients are ever-present. Throughout the world and down the ages individuals or groups have risen to positions of power and influence. Not always, but frequently, they have gained an elevated position in the community, determined to exercise authority with discretion, with thoughtfulness, with wisdom. But pressures of office have slowly eroded the resolve, and a feeling of omnipotence has begun to infect. There is first, impatience with criticism, followed by a desire to censure, and finally a determination to silence. That aspect of the Easter story is a familiar pattern. It existed before the birth of Jesus. It continues to the present time.
Those who were to persecute Jesus even unto death, were not evil men, rather they were arrogant men. Men who more and more saw threats in intellectual challenge, and heresy if precedent was questioned. They saw themselves not as destroyers, but preservers or defenders of the faith. Questioning and challenge must be silenced, if need be by crucifixion.
The road to tyranny is lined with good intentions. Corruption is insidious, the failure to respond to criticism easily becomes an endemic habit. This may arise in all aspects of life – religious, political, commercial, and even private. There needs be constant checks on authority if life is to become healthy. In its absence, authority becomes authoritarian, and dissenters are crucified.
But on that first Palm Sunday, that was ahead. That day itself was for rejoicing and optimism.
So what does Palm Sunday represent? What is its significance today? A point of significance for me is that the vision of those participants was not extinguished by the oppression of later events.
It was the victims of persecution rather than their oppressors who were the ultimate victors. The message of love, of forgiveness, of good neighbourliness was not stifled. Indeed it was to grow and spread throughout the world. Persecution strengthened it; opposition increased the resolve of its adherents; hardship in support of the message was a badge of honour.
We live sadly in a world where cruelty is not unknown. Avarice is all too prevalent. The exercise of power for personal advantage is a cancer in parts of public life, though happily not yet an epidemic. Examples of selfishness seem easier to find than those of generosity. The voice of protest against injustice fights to be heard against the shouts of the mob calling for vengeance.
It is tempting to think sometimes that this is the whole picture, the true description of the world.
But the high hopes of Palm Sunday were in the end triumphant. The fraternal, close-knit group to whom I referred earlier, who were to leave in disarray, spread a message of love and understanding, of forgiveness and compassion than eventually encircled the world. Christian communities grew on every continent. They are to be found in every land.
Palm Sunday is a reminder that high hopes need not be empty dreams; optimism can rise above idle speculation; life is not only a tale of disaster and evil, but can and does have its time of uninhibited joy.
And a second point about Palm Sunday is one hinted at earlier. The procession was a humble one, composed largely of fishermen, labourers, simple people of the soil and the like. The message they preached was of the importance of humility. Phrases from the teaching ring down the ages. “Consider the lilies of the field…”, “He who would be master of all must first be the servant of all”, “Cast out first the beam in your own eye…”.
There is the widow’s mite in the collection box, the sinner who prayed not like the Pharisee, and countless other examples. And Jesus rode upon a donkey. He washed the feet of the squabbling disciples who argued about their order of precedence.
Palm Sunday is a reminder that the meek are blest and shall inherit the earth. Pride in power, egotism and vain-glory are in the end self-destructive. The King rides upon a donkey and his influence and message goes to the ends of the earth. That surely is the enduring Palm Sunday message.
C.J. Rosling 9 April 1995
Hucklow 9 April 1995; 5 April 1998
16 April 2000 April 2003
Fulwood 31 March 1996
Upper 31 March 1996; 16 April 2000