On Sunday, April 1, Christians will do something strange. We will shout (sing, pray, etc.) “Hosanna,” wave a palm branch (that has probably been special ordered from a flower shop), and some churches will even have a live donkey! These practices seem strange, if not a little quaint. But what is really behind Palm Sunday?
In order to understand Palm Sunday (the week before Easter), we have to take a look at what the gospels say about what is usually called “The Triumphal Entry.” (You can read all four versions of this story in the four gospels: Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19). If we had been eyewitnesses to this strange ceremony two thousand years ago, we would recognize that a ritual like this wouldn’t have been terribly uncommon. In fact, each year at about this time (Passover, when Jews would be swarming to Jerusalem), King Herod Antipas would display his power and deter any politically ambitious Jews from demonstrating by entering the city of Jerusalem from the east on a powerful warhorse. But what we see here is the antithesis of this: Jesus, the peaceful rabbi, enters Jerusalem from the west riding on a donkey (of all things!). The situation would almost be funny, except that it was so revolutionary! Whereas Herod showed his kingly authority with a display intended to intimidate, Jesus showed himself as a king of peace, upsetting everything that they thought that they knew about power.
The palm branches were waved and placed on the ground for the beast of burden to walk over. And the cries of the people! Wow! The cries were the final affirmation of this King, who had come as a servant. The cries of Hosanna means “Save us, we pray!” in Hebrew. Indeed! And yet, based on the ways of the world, it would seem that the more realistic Savior to which we would cry should look more like the regal Herod than the humble Jesus.
I’ve just seen The Hunger Games (twice, but who’s counting!) and I can’t help but imagine the people with the palm branches and hosannas as the crowds in the Capitol City who are cheering on their favorite tribute. And in both cases, the heroes do the unexpected (I won’t be a spoiler for The Hunger Games, but I will regarding Jesus). Despite the cheers of Palm Sunday, he is awaiting the jeers of Good Friday. And instead of responding with power and retaliation when he is heading toward the cross, he will take the way of peace and humility, just as he did the week prior when times were good. When we ask God to “save us, we pray,” we must be prepared to take the path that he took…one that doesn’t always look like the way of success, progress, and acclaim from the world. When we’re waving the palm branches on Sunday, may we keep in mind the path that our Savior walked was one of humility and peace.