The tensions of Palm Sunday

By George Clifford

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.

Peace in heaven and glory in the highest. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 270)

As a Navy chaplain, I generally met few worshippers at Protestant services who were familiar with anything resembling a liturgical reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem comparable to the Liturgy of the Palms in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (pp. 270-272). Although few people complained about including the Liturgy of the Palms in Protestant services, I suspect that most attendees preferred quiescently sitting in a pew to parading around while waving palm branches.

Protestants are not the only people who feel that way. My current congregation annually participates the Liturgy of the Palms, but I cannot honestly say that many people appear to embrace it wholeheartedly.

Sitting in a pew offers a level of emotional comfort that exuberant processions lack. Pew sitting can engender feelings of familiarity, anonymity, and detachment. Conversely, participating in an exuberant procession can feel awkward, encourage physical and emotional interaction with others, and demand engagement. In other words, exuberant processions clash with the self-concept of many Episcopalians as God’s frozen chosen.

Furthermore, being enthused about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is difficult when we know what follows, i.e., Jesus’ passion. The Liturgy of the Palms can almost feel like cheering as Jesus moves toward his inevitable and agonizing death. Just as most people prefer to cheer for a winning sports team, so it is perhaps difficult to muster enthusiasm for the lost cause of Jesus’ triumphal entry.

A good friend, who is a Methodist and was a member of one of my Navy congregations, in a feeble attempt at humor once suggested that I was lazy, reducing my workload by involving as many lay people as possible in leading worship. That, however, is central to our Anglican liturgical tradition. Palm Sunday’s parade represents one pinnacle of this tradition, involving the entire congregation in commemorating the hope for freedom from Roman oppression that poor Palestinian Jews thought Jesus represented.

Carefully scrutinizing our intercessory prayers may reveal a similar set of expectations about how God interacts with the world. We want God to make everything right (fair, just, loving, beautiful, perfect, etc.), especially for us and our loved ones, and we want God to do that now. We’re ready to cheer – as soon as God acts. We’re wary about cheering until God acts, even though we continue to pray that God will now do what God failed to do on the first Palm Sunday. If nothing else, our unexamined prayers reveal our desires. Our unexamined prayers may also reveal a failure to integrate sound theology into our spirituality.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossnan underscore the tension between the unfulfilled expectations of Jesus’ followers and the reality of Roman power in their book, The Last Week. They suggest that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem occurred as a concurrent counterdemonstration to Pilate’s arrival with troops to reinforce the Jerusalem garrison, preparatory to the large influx of crowds who came to Jerusalem for Passover.

I know that I do not want to applaud Pilate’s arrival with its stark emphasis on imperial power and loyalty to the state in the person of the emperor – nor any modern equivalent orchestrated by today’s domination system. I also find myself wanting to avoid the crowd that welcomed Jesus, knowing what lies ahead for him and that the crowd’s high hopes about what Jesus will do are misplaced. Yet I also do not want to be left on the sidelines, oblivious to the great events of the day. Where then should I stand?

Perhaps this points to what really makes Palm Sunday processionals so uncomfortable. The forced and generally artificial reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry by palm toting parishioners clashes not only with our culture but also with our spiritual selves. For when I look honestly at myself, I discover a fractured self: misplaced expectations of Jesus, false loyalties, and more apathy than I want to acknowledge. There is no safe high ground on which to stand. The truth is that God enters into our brokenness, not into our wholeness, into our imperfection and not into some false illusion of perfection.

We know the end,

yet walk this way with song.

With each step into the story

the story permeates us.

This annual trudge to Calvary

the impulse to Jerusalem

no angel encouragement

no accompanying miracle.

We cluster like women who weep

recruited like unwilling Simon

offering our crooked consolations,

yet Christ took comfort from a thief.

Girls lift altar cloths aloft

borne in graceful arms like shrouds

or banners, woven in white linen

heralding this sacred way we walk.

Kathy Coffey, “Palm Sunday,” Theology Today, Vol. L, No. 4, January 1994, p. 595.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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