Mark’s “many people” spread leafy branches.
Matthew’s “a very large crowd” cut branches from the trees.
Luke’s “people” positioned cloaks on the ground.
John’s “great crowd” displayed branches of palm trees.
Me? I used balloons. But only once.
Palm Sunday – for April 17, 2011
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10)
Palm Sunday recalls Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The man from Galilee is astride a donkey; the disciples are marching, heads held high. By this time, in all of the Gospel accounts, the “very large crowd” parading with Jesus would have known him as prophet, healer, miracle-worker, story-teller, preacher, confidant, and friend. Would some have whispered or shouted Messiah? Christ? Son of God? We know they gave Jesus wondrous titles after the first Easter and after several generations passed along a tale of resurrection and after a few centuries when hundreds of Gospels were written, but what about right then? What claims were affirmed or denied in the streets of Jerusalem, swarming with strangers and foreigners, their senses assaulted by the aroma of cooking and the shit of animals? They jostled and cheered, with Kidron Valley behind them and the Holy City’s walls framing them and the harsh blue sky above them.
Alleluia! Hosanna in the highest! Some must have held their breath in dread, just like kids do when passing a cemetery. They feared what might happen next. Some must have shouted till they lost their voice, as happy to see Jesus then as many are today at the opening day of their favorite baseball team. The world was soon to change.
Once, with snow not long melted, while serving a small country church in Wisconsin, I didn’t use the traditional palms to decorate the sanctuary. First, it was Cheesehead Country, and there weren’t any palm trees growing on the dairy farms of the people I served. Second, I didn’t know back then I could’ve ordered palms ala an 800-number and by overnight delivery (and it was, gasp, pre-Internet).
Finally, I wanted to be different. So I asked the worship committee to string, dangle, and tack-up multi-colored balloons everywhere . . . entryway, sanctuary, around the altar.
No one liked it. Most folks were polite and said nothing—remember when you were told as a kid that if you don’t have something nice to say, keep your trap shut? But there was enough grousing for me to get the message: balloons were a dumb idea.
It’s Palm Sunday. It’s the start of Holy Week. It’s traditional. Even if only the Gospel of John mentioned palms, let our children wave those leafy branches as they process. Make sure the palms are positioned in places where they’ll soon be replaced by the equally traditional white lilies . . . purchased at Walmart for a darn good price. Get it right! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
We had palms the next year.
I liked the balloons. Yes, non-traditional. And yet, faithfully honest. Balloons appear for birthdays and anniversaries. But not graveside services. Balloons proclaim the 4th of July and family reunions. But not for loved ones in the caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base.
Balloons lose their air. Kids pop them with pins. They blow away in the breeze. They are festive and fragile.
Palm Sunday, for my sense of faith, reveals human foolishness at its worst. Since I know Holy Week, start to finish, I can’t help but think the same people shouting “Hosanna” will be the same people who chant, “Crucify him.” They will go from “let’s party” to “the party’s over” in the blink of an eye, in the time it takes for a nail to be pounded into wood.
Where I live now, and in most places where I’ve served churches in California, acquiring palm fronds is easy. (I took the picture at the beginning of this reflection along my bike route.) Indeed, for years Fresno city workers annually trimmed the palms lining the streets (including busy Palm Avenue) in the weeks before Palm Sunday. Folks from local churches could swing by the dump to grab the recently cut, and free, branches. No separation of church and state there!
Yup, having the Palm party is easy. Grab a branch, virtual or real, ordered online or at the dump, and wave it. Shout and sing.
Declare Jesus King. Everybody gets what they want, when they want it. God’s on our side.
But after the helium oozes from the balloon or the palm branch is swept into the trash, I must be honest. A lot of times, with my impatience and selfishness, when the party doesn’t go my way . . . I wonder if I would’ve yelled “Crucify him.”