Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. It will lead up to the literally “earth shaking” events of Good Friday. On Palm Sunday, Christians of all denominations mark the occasion with a moveable feast, a term designating any event on, or related to, the Christian calendar that varies from year to year. The date always falls on the Sunday before Easter. Next year it will occur on April 28; in 2015, on April 13, and in 2016, on March 20.
Maybe on this special Sunday a few more folks will be in church, or maybe they’ll wait until Easter next week because they don’t realize this Sunday also has a rich and beautiful significance all its own. It’s an event marked by all four Gospels as the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the days before his Passion.
In many Christian churches, the day is observed by the distribution of palm fronds, often tied to crosses, and given to worshippers. In some regions of the world, actual palms are hard to come by, so branches of box, yew, willow, or native trees are substituted. In Florida churches, like mine, palmettos may be used. I particularly like them because they’re fan-shaped and have a convenient “handle.” Just be sure to scrape off their “spines.”
The Gospels describe how Jesus rode into the city, and how the crowds lay down their cloaks in front of him along with small palm branches, symbolic of triumph and victory. It was customary in the Near East ancient world to strew the path of someone thought to be worthy of the highest honor. The people are also singing part of Psalm 118, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” The Hebrew hoshiiah na (“I beseech you, save now”) became the Greek hosanna, then hosanna en tois hypsistois (“Hosanna in the highest”), praise terms used by Christians.
The Jerusalem crowds believed Jesus was the long-promised “King,” the Messiah who had come to establish Israel’s freedom from Rome. They wanted a leader who would be their political hero (Don’t we all?).
The only problem is Jesus was not that kind of Messiah. Had he been, he would have ridden in on a stallion, not a donkey. Jesus chose this lowly beast because he came for a different purpose. The donkey revealed Jesus to be a simple Servant of God on a mission of peace, lifting up the lowly in spirit. Remember that it was also a donkey that carried Mary into Bethlehem just before Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough for livestock. And now a donkey carries Him to his death.
Writing from the donkey’s perspective, G.K. Chesterton said: “Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb/I keep my secret still. For I have had my hour/ One precious hour and sweet/ There was a shout about my ears/ And palms before my feet.”
In their humanity, the crowd missed his mission of peace. They wanted a conqueror who would defeat the Roman evil with violence and power. When they realized he was not such a man, their shouts of “Hosanna” soon became “Crucify Him!” They didn’t realize his victory was over far more sinister enemies: sin and death.
His victory is also our victory. He was crucified, buried, resurrected, and returned to heaven, leaving us to live out the commission He left for us until his return to earth. By his example, we are to show active sympathy, reaching out helping hands to the victims of poverty, disease, injustice, and war. This commission includes compassion for all humans and all creatures from the majestic stallion to the lowliest donkey. In essence, we must be willing servants, living out God’s peaceable kingdom here on earth.
Now, more than 2,000 years since Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, our palm branches and the image of the lowly donkey mean something quite different. For the Christian, they have become symbols of God’s sacrifice and of his victory over everlasting death. Wave high those palms and remember their message: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.