Palm Sunday 2023

What always catches my attention on Palm Sunday is the contrast between the joy with which it starts and the suffering with which it ends. We begin on the streets of Jerusalem with the thousands who gather to celebrate, and apparently, each year eat as many as 250,000 Passover lambs (?!). Jesus rides into all this on the back of a donkey, only to be cast right back out of the city walls and carry an instrument of death upon his own back. This contrast is powerful partly because it is inherent to life itself, where a curse may follow praise in the space of one breath. Indeed, as we often read at funerals, there is a season for everything: a time to dance and mourn, love and hate; believe and lose faith. 

How often have we cried “Hoshia na!” (Hosannah) or “Yehoshua” (Jesus) – which really means the same thing, “Save us!” – only to say “I don’t know him” next, and “Crucify him!” after. We notice this movement within our hearts as it relates to faith, but we also see it on the daily news with each public figure’s fall from grace, and each time a group of people becomes seen as less than human by others because they are not “known”. As for Jesus, it is true, we don’t really know how anyone could be so utterly lacking in self-centeredness that he would refuse to “exploit his equality with God” (Phil 2:6) to prove his love and show us the power of self-giving. It is quite possible that Jesus died simply because such a perfect life was incompatible with the world where everyone looks out for their own interest and creates scapegoats to feel better about themselves. 

But, he had to try. So, reenacting a passage from Zech 9:9 in a kind of street theatre, with the gesture of borrowing a little animal to ride on, Jesus said to the crowd, “Let the greatest among you become like the youngest”. So this is the second aspect of Palm Sunday that stands out to me, but sometimes gets missed — the children’s loyalty to Jesus. Early on, sure, it was easy to join in this theatrical production, and let “sweet hosannas” ring from their lips, as in our hymn. But, do you recall what happened after Jesus received this praise? Instead of piously offering a sacrifice like everyone else, he really “loses it” at the Temple; perhaps, for a valid reason. Nonetheless, this set in motion the events of his tragic end, and the only ones who still hang on to their palm branches after THAT were, in fact, “the youngest”. 

Consider observing the kids in your lives. They do not have a well-developed intellectual understanding of faith (most adults don’t), and they are also  emotionally quite volatile, switching between “love you” and “hate you” seemingly on a dime (as most adults want to, but refrain). But that’s probably why Jesus’ outburst was “small potatoes” to the kids at the Temple. What allowed them to stay with the memories of his miracles, rather than his anger, were the qualities that are worth imitating and praising in our own children: an unwavering openness and readiness to notice the mystery in ordinary life, and capacity to forgive. Our scripture and traditions, many of which we inherit from ancient Judaism, reminds us to foster these strengths in our families. 

Speaking of Passover, the celebration that Jesus joined on the donkey’s back, it will be celebrated again by the Jewish people around the world – for more than 3000th time! – starting on Wednesday. I heard that their traditional dinner may include a curious ritual of retelling the story of Passover to a group of imaginary children: one yet to learn about it, one who is wise, one who is defiant, and one who is too young to know what to ask. The fifth child exists, but refuses to attend. So a guest might take on the role of the child who lacks knowledge, and ask, “What IS Passover?” And another one would ask, as the wise child, “What is Passover to US?” The defiant child distances himself from the community and mocks, “What is Passover to YOU?” And the last two children do not say anything. The point of this dinner exercise is to highlight that every one of these children lives in each of us. Each of us is processing our own situations, pain and joy, from such inner, alternating perspectives. The child who is the loudest at the moment may shape our faith and forgiveness in a given season of life “under heaven”, but we know that other times will come, and other voices within us will have something to say.

May the coming week highlight for us the whole range of times that we all go through: the times to wash other people’s feet and share meals, wish the cup to pass us by and experience the garden betrayals, strip the layers of pretense and bear our crosses, keep vigils with the mourners and roll away the stones that stand between us and that potential for new life which is present in every passing moment. Let us listen to the wise child in us who, through it all, connects us with God by wanting to learn more. Sure, the defiant child inside us will attempt to deny the mystery, turn the Temple into a marketplace and trade hope for cynicism. His power is immense, but the youngest, least knowledgeable child will continue to tell us – if we let her – that faith is not all rational, and peace may surpass understanding. So let us continue to seek out all these children within ourselves, our families, and communities – inviting them in to share what we know of God, our beloved traditions, and our sense of purpose. Some might refuse to come at first, or appear to mock us; yet, others will lead us towards unexpected insights with their surprising “left-field” questions. Together, we grow. Thanks be to God. 

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