Palm Sunday: Today we Celebrate

Sadao Watanabe, "The triumphal entry", 1968
After [Jesus] had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." (Luke 19:28-40)

Growing up, the 4th of July always began with “American Salute,” Morton Gould’s orchestral variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” My parents would blast it from the stereo as our wake-up call, our signal that it was time to get out of bed, eat breakfast, decorate our bikes with red, white, and blue crepe paper for the police station’s 4th of July bike rodeo – an obstacle course, of sorts – and then, after lunch, our town’s annual 4th of July parade.

My father, a police officer, was often the lead car in the parade. He’d ride down the closed streets slowly, setting the pace for the rest of the parade, and, of course, stopping for a moment when he reached the place where my sisters and I were sitting, so that we could run up to the side of the car and say hello through his open window.

Our parades were like any other town’s parades. Girl scouts would ride in open-air trailers hitched up to one of their dad’s pickup trucks. Men from the VFW marched with flags, the whole crowd standing and saluting as they passed. Village board members would ride in convertibles and wave. Boy Scout troops would march along, sometimes tossing candy into the crowd, sometimes dousing us with Super Soakers. Volunteer marching bands played patriotic favorites, local churches would collect canned goods along the parade route, and we’d all cover our ears as the fire trucks brought up the rear of the parade, blaring their sirens and blasting their horns.

It was the festival of Passover, the annual commemoration of the night years prior when God spared the lives of the Israelites’ firstborn children. During this festival, Israelite men were expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem so that they could bring offerings of thanks to God in the temple. With so many extra people coming into Jerusalem, the atmosphere might have felt like our 4th of July celebrations: cheering crowds, music, laughter, noise, and celebration.

And there was probably at least one extravagant parade: the procession of the Roman governor Pilate into the city. See, during a crowded and significant festival like Passover, Pilate would have been expected to come to the city to keep order. Someone of his esteem would have entered the city with his own entourage, displaying his power and his wealth. Think of it as presidential motorcade meets 4th of July parade.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city, however, looks nothing like this. Pilate comes with wealth and power, and a fitting parade to display it. But Jesus, the king, enters the city in a very different manner. We join Jesus and his disciples on the fringe of Jerusalem, with Jesus sending a couple followers ahead to a nearby village to borrow a colt.

Notice that he doesn’t send them to fetch a triumphant white steed, or a majestic Clydesdale, or even a regular old workhorse. He sends them to fetch a colt: a small, young horse, certainly unridden – an animal that would have probably made Jesus look sort of silly or pathetic. This gives us a clue that Jesus is not riding into the city as a majestic warrior or military victor. He’s not riding into the city like Pilate, full of power and might. He is instead riding into the city humbly, as the prince of peace and the lamb being led to slaughter.

And then once they get to Jerusalem, notice that in Luke’s gospel, there is as a conspicuous lack of both palms and people. There are no children shouting “hosanna,” and no crowds lining the streets waving branches as Jesus passes. The humble vision of Jesus riding on a coat-strewn colt is noticed only by the disciples, who are doing their best to make some noise, and the Pharisees, who out of frustration or fear, try to hush them up.

The small-scale nature of the scene reminds us that Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem was not that of a triumphant warrior or political hero, but rather that of a humble servant. It reminds us that Jesus entered the city in order to journey to the cross. And so, we need a different image of the parade into Jerusalem, something that reflects the humble and tragic quality of the triumphal entry, rather than the racaus celebration that we want it to be. Perhaps a fitting image would be something like the last scenes of the movie “The Mission.”

The movie tells the story of a Spanish Jesuit Priest, Brother Gabriel. He travels to the South American jungle to build a mission, and to try to convert the natives to Christianity. Throughout the movie, Brother Gabriel remains a firm but peaceful presence as he mentors and shows love to the native people and remains faithful to his mission, even as political turmoil between Spain and Portugal threaten the future of the mission that he worked so hard to build.

And at the end of the movie, when Portuguese colonial soldiers attack the mission, Brother Gabriel and the natives who have chosen to stay with the mission start walking toward the troops. Brother Gabriel carries a cross, and they all march peacefully and unarmed, singing, into the soldiers’ fire. For Brother Gabriel, the mission was not just a place. The mission was his own personal mission, to show the love of God in the world, at whatever cost was demanded of him, even if that cost were his life.

Jesus enters Jerusalem, knowing that he, too, is walking directly into the line of fire. He enters Jerusalem with his face lifted to the cross. His parade into Jerusalem is a celebration of the king who comes in the name of the Lord, not in the name of power or of prestige. This is the king who will be worshiped not for his strength, but for his weakness and his self-emptying. This is the king who is worthy of praise because of his humility, even in the face of those who would strike him and disgrace him. This is the king who would give up his life in order to save the lives of God’s people.

The triumphal entry today is just the beginning. It is the beginning of the good news of the cross and the resurrection. It is the joyful beginning of a week that will detour into suffering and grief before we are able to rejoice again. There will be a time for grief and tears as we move through Holy Week and recount Jesus’ passion, but for today, we celebrate:

We celebrate, for our king has come into our midst. We celebrate, for this king is Jesus, who cared for the poor, healed the sick, and preached forgiveness. Today, we celebrate, for a feast has been spread before us: bread enough for all to eat, wine enough for all to drink. And at this meal, we will echo the words of the disciples: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” For today, we gather around a table where we receive in our hands God’s assurance of forgiveness and salvation. We taste the bread of grace and the cup of salvation, welcoming Jesus, our savior, fully into our midst.

So let us lift our hearts and celebrate, raising our voices in praise. For if we were silent, God would raise up the entire creation around us to proclaim the good news of our king, who is highly exalted, who has been given the name that is above every name. And so, at the name of Jesus, our knees and all knees should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and our tongues should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. My friends, our eyes might be cast ahead toward the cross, but today, we celebrate.

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