Which procession will we choose? A meditation on Palm Sunday
I. There were two parades on the first Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. It is the day when we remember Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In many churches, children and parishioners reenact this by processing into the sanctuary, singing, and waving palms.
We know from the Gospel According to Mark that Jesus entered Jerusalem from the East, riding on a donkey. Many of the city’s poor and oppressed came out to see this humble Jewish rabbi who worked miracles enter the city. They waved palms and cried out “Hosanna,” which means “save!” Jesus was especially popular with the poor rural people who were struggling to feed their families.
The Jewish people were an overtaxed and oppressed racial minority. They longed for a Messiah from the line of King David to come and lead a revolution against the oppressive Roman rulers.
But while Jesus was entering the city from the East, Pilate, the governor of Judea, was marching into the city from the West. He would have marched in with full military might. His parade was a show of force to remind the people of Jerusalem that Rome was in charge.
While all this occurred, King Herod could have watched the proceedings from his fortress. Herod was known for the great things he built, but he was also known for his cruelty. When he became King of Judea, he built a mighty fortress on the northwest corner of the temple mount. He garrisoned this fortress with Roman soldiers and it was his job to keep the Jewish people under control.
The message was clear: From high up in his fortress, Herod could survey everything that occurred in Jerusalem. Pilate was on the ground with troops. Rome wanted the people to know that they were watching.
II. The celebration of Passover was a tense time in the city. It made Rome nervous.
In The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, (2007) the biblical scholars Borg and Crossan explain why Rome felt they needed to make a grand show of force during the feast of the Passover.
Every year on Passover, more than 200,000 pilgrims gathered to worship and to celebrate the Passover. The Passover celebration was a holy time when the Jewish people remembered how God led them out of slavery in Egypt.
The Passover story is powerful, especially when we consider that at this point in history, the Jewish people were subjugated under another foreign oppressor: Rome.
The yearly Passover celebration made the authorities nervous. They worried that when the people gathered together to remember how they were liberated in Egypt, they would get ideas about freedom and start a rebellion against Rome. In general, they considered it dangerous to have so many members of an oppressed group in one place. They were afraid that there might a riot.
Rome was always on the lookout for insurrection, so it was the job of the Roman governor to keep the peace. They sent Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, to keep the peace and make sure that the situation remained under control.
It was as if the Roman authorities were saying: Let the people have their festival. But also let it be known that there is a Roman presence in the city.
Therefore, there were two parades on the first Palm Sunday. From the west came Pilate, leading his parade of armed guards. Imagine them—a parade of troops, fine calvary on horses, the sunlight glinting off of steel. Rome was known for her military might.
And from the East—from Bethany—came Jesus, riding on a donkey.
III. The journey to Jerusalem: “The Way”
We have had a long journey to get to this Palm Sunday.
In order to appreciate how far we have traveled, let us take some time to go all the way back to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. This will help us to get a fuller picture of the critical place the Palm Sunday story holds in the biblical narrative.
THE WAY in Greek has a deeper meaning than in English. It can mean “the path,” “the road,” or even “the journey.”
From the very beginning of his Gospel, Mark places an emphasis on “the way.”
Mark 1:1-3 In the beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the son of God, as it was written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way. A voice crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.”
Mark begins his Gospel narrative by telling us about Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptizer. He writes about how John prepared “the way” for Jesus. Jesus will then show all of us “the way,” to eternal life. It is a long journey, and the way of Jesus leads to Jerusalem, to the sorrow of Calvary, to the darkness of Good Friday– but also to the joy and the resurrection of Easter morning.
John the Baptizer was revolutionary. He preached a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
This was in contrast to the established order. Before this point, the only way to receive forgiveness for sins was to make a sacrifice at the temple. John baptizing and proclaiming forgiveness of sins was a challenge to the temple’s role. At this point in history, the only place where people could receive forgiveness for their sins was the temple. The temple was where people encountered God and where forgiveness was granted.
When Jesus came, he also challenged the role of the temple. He performed miracles on the sabbath and forgave sins. He also proclaimed that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it again in three days– but he did not mean the earthly temple. He was speaking of his body, and how he had come to replace the temple (John 2:12-22).
The first time Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark, he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is the way to that kingdom.
“The time has come,” he said. “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the Good News (MARK 1:15)!”
The word for REPENTENCE means more than just feeling sorry. In Greek, the roots of the word indicate taking action or making a change.
III. It is never too late to choose the right parade. It is never too late to repent and follow Jesus.
We might be tempted to judge the people who lived in Jerusalem during the first century. The same people who cried out “Hosanna!” were also the ones who cried out “Crucify him!’
However, if we had lived at the same time and the same place– if we had suffered as they did under Roman rule– we might have made the same mistake. We may have cried out along with the crowds, “give us Barabbas!” Or we may have joined the Roman soldiers when they mocked Christ on the cross.
Now, we have the gift of the entire biblical story. We know what happened on the first Easter morning. We are aware of Christ’s sacrifice and we can rejoice in the dawning of a new day.
But if we had lived back then, we might have made the wrong choice. We may have chosen to follow the wrong parade. It is easy to understand why people would be impressed by the power and might of this world. Material goods and wealth are very tempting. Rome was powerful and incredibly wealthy. Pilate put on a great spectacle on the first Palm Sunday.
The people were expecting a savior—a Messiah—to come to them from the line of David. They expected him to come as a Warrior King. Instead, they received a humble rabbi on the back of a donkey. It is understandable that many would be confused and choose to join the wrong procession.
Although our sins are different from the people who lived in Jerusalem during that first Palm Sunday, we have all sinned. We have all made mistakes. We have all broken God’s law of perfect love.
When Jesus died on the cross, he died to save us from all of our sins. It is never too late to repent and make the right choice. It is never too late to choose to follow Christ’s procession to the cross.
Conclusion: Following The Way of Jesus is hard. It leads through Jerusalem, to the darkness of Good Friday– but it also leads us to the resurrection of an Easter morning. It leads us home.
There is a longing in all of our hearts—a longing for forgiveness. A longing to come home.
Sometimes, we get swept up in the parades of this world. We all make mistakes and fall out of step, but we can be forgiven. We can make the right choice. We can choose to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.
When we repent, we don’t just feel sorry for the sins we have committed. We turn around, make the right decision, and choose to follow wherever Christ leads. When we repent, we ask God to give us the strength to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.
Even if we are among the earthly throng, we can change our minds and join the procession that leads to the Kingdom of God.
The way leads through Jerusalem. It is a hard way and a long journey. It goes through the sorrow of Holy Thursday, the anguish of Good Friday, and the blackness of the Saturday before Easter. But the way also leads us out into the dawn of a resurrection morning.
The way leads to the cross
And to resurrection.
If we follow Christ…
He will lead us home.
On Palm Sunday, we face a choice: Which procession will we choose?
About the author: Rev. Rebecca Holland is the pastor of Christ Community and Llyswen UMC in Altoona, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse and The United Methodist Church and Disability. Her new book Hope for the Broken: Using Writing to Find God’s Grace is currently available from Touch Point Faith, a division of Touch Point Press. She is an ordained elder in the Susquehanna conference of the United Methodist Church.