Yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday. Is there a more ambivalent day on the Christian calendar? “Hosanna!” shouted the people lining the streets of Jerusalem. Literally, “Save us!” Save us, they meant, from the Roman oppressor.
Jesus did come to save them, of course, but not from the Romans. Over the next few days, the crowd would come to realize that Jesus wasn’t on board with their agenda. By Friday the very people who shouted “Hosanna!” were shouting “Crucify him!”
So it has always made me a little uneasy to commemorate the shouting and the palm-waving on Palm Sunday. Does praise count as praise when the people are that confused and, as it turns out, that bloodthirsty?
We have baptized all our children on Palm Sunday. The first was more or less accidental; the Sunday that was convenient and available happened to be Palm Sunday. We held our boy in his long white gown and the children came down the aisle with their palm branches and the big organ rumbled and we sang,
All glory, laud, and honor
To Thee, Redeemer King
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring.
Immediately we understood that Palm Sunday, traditionally associated with the faith and praise of children, was the perfect day to recognize and celebrate a child’s place in the Covenant. So we baptized our other five children on Palm Sundays too.
We came to think of Palm Sunday as our family holiday and were a little sad whenever the day came around and we didn’t have anybody to baptize. It may be my imagination or selective memory, but Palm Sunday seems always to be beautiful–sunny and bright after the long, gray nastiness of a Nashville winter.
Yet Palm Sunday has still troubled me. What, exactly, are we celebrating?
My friend and pastor Russ Ramsey preached yesterday. He helped me see that we celebrate on Palm Sunday the same thing we celebrate any time we baptize a baby. He summed it up in a sentence: “Jesus is always doing more than you think.” We expect Jesus to deliver us from Romans or fears or insecurities or money troubles or addictions or heartache or loneliness. But Jesus came to deliver you from troubles that go much deeper than any of those. “I am doing a new thing here,” he is always saying. “You have no idea.”
On that first Palm Sunday there wasn’t a soul in Jerusalem who understood what Jesus was up to. As the scripture points out, even “his disciples did not understand these things at first.” They were as ignorant of his purposes as a little baby at the baptismal font. When it comes to that, if I’m any less ignorant myself, it’s through no merit or wisdom of my own, but only by God’s grace. Yet Jesus did what he came to do. He continues to do what he means to do, requiring neither our permission or our full understanding.
I don’t wish to suggest that our will and our understanding don’t figure into the equation. I do wish to suggest, however, that this business of sin and redemption is full of mysteries, and our grasp of things isn’t as important in the end as our willingness to believe God even as we inhabit the mystery. And I’m thankful for a day to commemorate Jesus’ unflagging determination to rescue people who had no idea how badly they needed to be rescued. Hosanna! He is always doing more than we think.
Russ Ramsey has put together a series of daily readings he calls “Easter Week in Real Time.” They walk the reader day-by-day through Holy Week, showing from the Gospels what was happening each day between Palm Sunday and Easter. You can find “Easter Week in Real Time” here at The Rabbit Room. I’ll be reading them this week, and I commend them to you.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.