I heard someone (I think it was Dr. Amy- Jill Levine) say years ago, that we like to think that the Holy Week liturgies speak for themselves, but they don’t. They speak loudly, but unless you consciously unpack what they say, and what people hear, you run the serious risk of adding another reinforcing layer of the culturally-Christian-miasma that we all swim in as Americans right now, instead of pointing out how our liturgies and stories subvert it.
Palm Sunday is, for me, the touchiest. On a personal note, the day has immense meaning for me. On a cultural, historical note, the day where Christian communities gather to tell and act out the Passion story has scary echoes in a world where white supremacist terrorism is emboldened yet again. If we don’t take pains to lift up how subversive these stories are, other voices will step in, and interpret them for us.
So here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday, Year C
And here we have it—the foundational story. In the gospel of Mark, the description of the last week of Jesus’ life takes up easily half of the gospel. In Luke, it’s less, but the impact is no less. In the course of our liturgical year, everything has been leading towards this—all of Lent, the slow march after Christmas, we have turned our faces towards Jerusalem along with Jesus.
At the beginning of this service, we channel the triumphant entry as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. We wave palms, and shout Hosanna to the highest heaven! Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! We reenact what the crowd did as Jesus rode into the holy city on a donkey, praising him, and praising God, who sends salvation.
But the giddiness wears off quickly, and by the time we get to the Gospel reading of the passion narrative, we hear where the week ends up. The palms are put away; the shouts are silenced, and Jesus is arrested, betrayed, and killed by the powers that be.
There’s a common enough way to hear this Palm Sunday story—that is to hear it as a story of the crowd. It’s the crowd’s fault, we think, this inconstant crowd that first celebrates Jesus as he rides into town, and then turns on him at the trial before Pilate. How faithless!, we are told. How fickle they were! We must not be like the crowd of Jerusalem!
The fickleness of the human heart is an important failing to reflect on, to be sure. However, as it is played out in the Passion narrative, it can be a dangerous one to dwell on overmuch. Historically, the story of the Passion has specifically been used to stir up antiJewish hatred. People would watch passion plays in the middle ages, then so frequently go out and commit acts of violence against their Jewish neighbors that they began to be banned as early as the mid 14th century. Even today, in our own time, In Kansas City, a few years ago, a man attacked the Jewish Community Center on Palm Sunday afternoon. This story, and the way we as Christians tell it, has baggage. This story has been used to damage and hurt, rather than to lift up and heal. So we must be conscious and careful.
In point of fact, John Dominic Crossan argues that our assumptions about the crowd may be faulty. He points out that the Passover was a well-known festival with political overtones, and Pilate was a notorious tyrant. We know that the Romans always upped security around the high holy days in Jerusalem anyway. And Passover was particularly sensitive—if you’re Pilate, you do not want mass gatherings of zealous faithful, recalling how God delivered them that time from foreign oppression. They might get rebellious ideas.
So the likelihood that Pilate would have allowed a mass gathering to greet Jesus as he entered the city at the start of Passover is quite small. The word translated “crowd” here just signifies “more than two.” In art, in our minds, we think of this scene as being a popular demonstration—but more likely, if they wanted to avoid immediate arrest, it was a small gathering of friends.
Likewise, when Jesus goes before Pilate, and the crowd shouts for his crucifixion—again, it’s the same Greek word. We’re looking at any gathering larger than two people here. And again, Pilate, notorious grump, is not going to allow any gathering of any size anywhere near his fortress. Pilate—it’s worth noting—was such a despot that Rome actually had enough of him and recalled him in 36CE. THAT’s how mean and terrible he was. Even the Empire thought he needed to cool his jets a bit.
All of which is to say—it’s not the same crowd. It’s not like the general inhabitants of Jerusalem adored Jesus one moment, and despised him the next. Instead, what we are left with is a much more complicated situation.
We are left with collaborating religious leaders who want to save their own power. Oppressive rulers who just care about order—but not what makes for peace, wholeness, or tranquility. And a system that churns up the children of God as it runs along.
The injustice that culminates in the crucifixion of Jesus is easier to swallow if it can be neatly pinned on one person, or one discreet group of people. It was Pilate’s fault! It was Caiaphas’ fault! It was the crowd, it was Judas, it was the Romans, it was the soldiers, it was the one guy who always looked kinda suspicious.
Truth is, though, the sin that nailed Christ to the cross can’t be pinned to one person or group. The sin that put Christ on the cross was the result of entire systems that everyone contributed to. Entire ways of being that kept the world spinning, yet relied on daily injustice to keep going. Systems that, in the words of Abraham Heschel, no one is responsible for, but where everyone is guilty. To preserve the status quo, to preserve the world as it was, to preserve the lives that everyone knew and enjoyed—Jesus was hung on a cross. Because of the sin of the entire world.
Christ came into the world preaching the reign of God—a reign that fundamentally destablized everything. Such a reign as he preached would have altered everything, every person’s life. To make the last, first would have changed so much—the world can not allow it.
The sin that condemns Jesus on that day so long ago still haunts us. We live in a broken world that humanity has shattered over generations, and now the brokenness extends past what we ourselves can fix. The brokenness is in the air we breathe, the assumptions we make, the water we swim in. We live in Palm Sunday day in and day out.
Yet this is not where God leaves us. God does not leave us condemned to the wreckage we make of God’s creation. Even after our sin tries its best, Easter shows us that nothing can permanently stop God and God’s redemption. Out of the darkness of this present hour, God’s love will come blazing forth ever more radiant. We may be standing in Holy Week, but if we just wait in faith, God will bring us into Easter’s triumph.