A Homily for Palm Sunday
Text: St. Mark 11:1-11
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the triumphant king. Amen.
Can you feel the tension in the air?
You can cut it with the knife.
The world feels like it’s on the very verge of coming undone.
In the shadow of Rome, a divisive preacher arrives riding on the foal of a donkey, echoing the ascension of King Solomon, the Son of David. It was Passover, the city had swollen to many times its usual population, and was full of pilgrims eager for the liberation foreshadowed in the exodus.
For the disciples, this was it. Isaiah had said that the Messiah would free the oppressed, right? And how much more oppressed could you possibly get than Judea under the Roman Empire? The confrontation between the world and God must be at hand. Finally, the Roman oppressors would be overthrown. This was what all of history had been building towards.
Christ was greeted with joyous shouts and cloaks spread on the ground, calling to mind Jehu’s anointing as King of Judah. These actions call to mind times when the Jewish people rebuilt and rebelled: the king riding, triumphant and victorious, on a donkey, from the post-Exilic prophet Zechariah. The waving of palms, calling to mind the Maccabee’s overthrow of their Greek rulers.
Under imperial oppression, in a time when any hint of insurrection is met with brutal violence, Jesus is greeted as the Son of David, the heir to a political throne, come to restore Jerusalem to its former glory, a political savior.
Saint Matthew adds an important detail: “the whole city was in turmoil.” There were those in the crowd who had been expecting this moment for a century, waiting for the Messiah to lead them in open revolt against the Romans. The zealots had their weapons at the ready. The scene unfolding before us today is one that could have easily led to violence, the type of protest that all too easily turns into a riot followed by a brutal crackdown and civil war. There were those in the crowd expecting a climactic showdown at the barricades. Make no mistake: somewhere in Jerusalem, the powerful were starting to get very nervous and the Roman soldiers were sharpening their spears.
In our joy today, as we sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” and march around waving these strange branches, as we get caught up in the celebration of our Lord’s triumphal entry, we miss something: The triumphal entry looked more like a protest than a parade. And ironically, in our contemporary celebrations, we miss how connected we are to this story. The Liturgy of the Palms speaks to our political climate and division, to the tension in our own world. It speaks to our own longing and expectation.
As we watch partisan tension in our nation simmer, as Austin and Parkland recover from horrific acts of violence, as our children and teachers take to the streets, shouting “Hosanna!” – that is, “Save us!”, as Syria’s civil war continues, as we watch for news from Russia and North Korea, as every day seems to bring a new act of violence, we know something of the sense of anxiety in Jerusalem that day. We, too, know the fear that a single spark might set the world on fire.
The zealots in the crowd that day missed the point: they were waiting for someone to serve as their rebel commander, a general lead them in glorious battle. They misunderstood Jesus: that Christ’s victory over oppression does not look like we expect it to.
In our crowd today, we miss the point: Christ’s work in the world is not about some remote historical event or a far-off palace in the clouds but about a Kingdom erupting into this world here and now.
Christ’s triumphant entry carries just as much political weight now as it did in the first century.
And so today, God calls us to join in the shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Today, we join with the crowds welcoming Christ into the city, rejoicing in the arrival of our savior. As the world threatens to come undone around us, we look to a Kingdom not of this world, and we are called to let that Kingdom shine forth in this world.
As politics threaten to divide even the Church, we pray that our Lord might reign over us.
But the tension is still there, hanging thick in the air.
Rome knows how to put down a rebellion.
And there is more to come.