Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Open the gates of righteousness that I may enter.
Isaiah 50:4-9a – I gave my back to those who hit me; my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
Psalm 31:9-16 – Into your hands I commend my spirit…
Philippians 2:5-11 – Have this mind among that was in Christ, who emptied himself and became obedient to death on a cross.
The Sunday before Easter usually begins with a blessing of the Palms outdoors and a processional. All participants are given palm branches to wave.
Information on the procession can be found in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leaders Desk Edition, p. 662-626. The Procession with Palms (Year B) is available as a leaflet from Augsburg Fortress.
Lutheran World Relief offers fair trade “eco-palms”. Here’s why. This year we’ll purchase $4.5 million in palms. Most of them will be harvested in Latin America. Very little of this money reaches the actual farmers. This program gives $0.05/palm back to the community and pays farmers fairly, eliminating the large corporations that pocket the profits and underpay workers. Also, creating steady markets within communities means they will care for and keep up their palms, rather than devastating their forests. By this time you have probably already purchased your palms, but consider making a note of this for next year.
After Palm Sunday worship, some palms should be dried and stowed for burning to make ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday.
Pre- Vatican II, Passion Sunday was the fifth Sunday of Lent (the beginning of Passiontide) and Palm Sunday was the sixth. Dominica in Palmis, Dominica or Dies Palmarum was the beginning of Holy Week. In 1969, Pope Paul VI, moved Passion Sunday to Lent VI, creating “Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord. In Germany it was called Black Sunday, since the crosses were all draped in black on that day for Holy Week.
I grew up with Passion and Palm Sunday mixed. I am told that the practice of reading the passion on the Sunday before Easter began because many people did not attend Good Friday services, and therefore would never hear the story of the cross. They would skip from a festive entry into Jerusalem to Easter. Easter with no cross.
Recently there has been a move back to letting Good Friday carry the weight, and allowing Palm Sunday to be just that, a celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.
Recognizing that this Sunday continues to have multiple purposes, I am including two reflections this week. The first is on Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The second is on the Philippians 2 Christ Hymn.
Before that, as you prepare for Good Friday, click here for Mark Mummert’s helpful blog post on the Solemn Reproaches for Good Friday.
Let us pray.
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and, with their lives, praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The Hebrew Bible text is Isaiah 50:4-9a, about the abuse the suffering servant is to endure. Psalm 31 is “into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
The Philippians text is chapter 2, the Christ Hymn, on which I will comment below.
Zechariah 9:9 says,
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The donkey is actually the mount of royalty arriving in peace (Genesis 49:11, Judges 5:5, 10:4). On a horse is to arrive in war. This Jesus is royalty, but he is the Prince of Peace, and he is arriving in peace, not as a conquering hero. This king practices humility, as Paul also expresses in Philippians 2.
Charles Spurgeon writes, “Brethren, let us be lowly. Did I hear one say, ‘Well, I will try to be lowly’? You cannot do it in that way. We must not try to act the lowly part; we must be lowly, and then we shall naturally act in a humble manner. It is astonishing how much of pride there is in the most modest.”
Jesus’ entry is not a pseudo-humility. The donkey is royalty. The palms signify victory. There is a greatness here, but it is a greatness expressed not in pomposity, but in humility. Those who are truly great need not prove it. Einstein, for instance, had a humorous humility to him. It is the nature of true strength, to not have to posture.
I have often thought if we, the church, could learn this kind of humility, the world would pay careful attention. It could be our greatest form of evangelism, living lives of humility. As others have said, your life is the greatest sermon you will preach. Jesus showed his greatness through lowliness, his power through humility. The lesson for me this Palm Sunday is humbleness.
Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being.
Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility.
The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
The gospel writers present Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as both a Triumph and, at the same time, a kind of anti-Triumph – a parody of the Caesars’ pompous marches into Rome after each military victory.
Julius Caesar was born 100 years before Jesus. Known for his incredible speaking ability, his magnetic personality and his military genius, he was elected Pontifex Maximus, the Pagan High Priest of Rome and, for a time, Roman Consul. He reduced the taxes of the rich and gave land to the poor, becoming extremely popular with all levels of society. He conquered what are now Britain, France, Belgium and Germany west of the Rhine, making him the greatest military leader of his time.
When the Roman Senate chose to elect Pompey, another great military general, as Consul over Caesar and asked him to give up his army, he did not know what to do: submit to the will of the Senate or to Civil War? On January 19, 49 years before the birth of Christ, Caesar said, Iacta alea est – the die is cast – and his armies crossed the Rubicon River, entering Italy to change history forever.
From there he conquered Spain, then Greece, Egypt, Syria and Pontus. He conquered the Mediterranean world with such ease he reported his victory with the words Veni, Vidi, Vici – I came. I saw. I conquered. He never once doubted that he had done the right thing. Rome needed the best general in charge, right? His victory proved that he had done the right thing; the gods were on his side. The victor is the winner and the winner is the gods’ choice, right?
When he returned to Rome, the people lined the streets for the traditional Triumphal March of a general after leading a successful campaign. They waved branches and threw their garments before him as he rode into Rome on his horse. The historian Dio Cassius tells us the triumphator would gather his armies and the Praetorian Guard, and enter Rome clad in armlets and a regal purple robe embroidered with gold, after the rites of Dionysus. With his face painted red, a gold laurel crown upon his head that had been borrowed from the Temple of Jupiter, and a branch in his hand, the triumphator represented the god himself before the cheering crowds.
The racially-diverse, conquered prisoners of war would march ahead of him, Africans, Jews and Arabs; proof the victories he had attained. A bull would be dressed up and led along in procession, to be sacrificed to the gods at the end. A priest would walk behind the bull with a double-bladed axe for the sacrifice. Just before the sacrifice, the triumphator would be offered a cup of wine, but he would refuse, and instead the pour out the wine on the bull or the altar. The wine symbolized the precious blood of the sacrifice. After the sacrifice, the Emperor would then sit on his Throne in glory.
Triumphs were held from the beginning of the Republic, but what started as simple victory marches and celebrations became increasingly complex and lavish over time. By 20 B.C., 20 years before the birth of Christ, the triumphal procession became the sole privilege of the Emperor, who would parade through the city as people shouted, “Hail Caesar!”
Both Luke and Matthew based their version of Jesus’ passion on the Gospel of Mark, which was written in Rome for Christians in Rome. They could not possibly fail to see what we 21st century American Christians almost always miss: Jesus’ procession to the cross is a parody of the Roman triumphal march. It follows that formula.
Jesus is taken first to the Praetorian guard, where he is clad with a purple robe and a crown of thorns.
They parade him through the city, shouting, “Hail, king of the Jews!”
His executioner walks alongside him.
The triumphator would be led to the Capitol, the Head. Jesus was led to Golgotha, the place of the Skull.
Like the triumphator, Jesus too is offered ceremonial wine. He too refuses it, echoing his words at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:24-25).
At the end of the procession, the Emperor would sit on his throne. When Claudius returned to Rome, he sat on his throne with his sons-in-law on his right and on his left. When Titus returned after destroying Jerusalem and the temple, he had Vespasian on his right, and Domitian on his left. When Jesus concludes his triumphal procession, he is crucified with two thieves, one on his right, and one on his left.
The gospel writers want us to see Jesus’ last day not just as a triumphal march, but also as a kind of anti-triumphal march. Whereas the world glorifies power and violence and destruction, Jesus encounters the hatred and violence of his own religious tradition and the hatred and violence of the world’s greatest empire. Yet he responds not with hatred and violence, but with submission to God’s will and, in his resurrection, finds a victory that transcends the human condition.
Dan Clendenin calls it a Counter-Procession that ends with the death penalty.
He highlights three reasons Jesus is crucified:
- Subverting the nation
- Encouraging people to not pay taxes
- Calling himself a king
While these are probably trumped up charges, the sign over his head on the cross confirms that this was probably the line of thought: “King of the Jews”.
Like Julius Caesar, Jesus was popular. He drew large crowds. Anyone who could draw a crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children, was a dangerous person. Clogging Jerusalem’s streets drew attention to Jesus. An anti-imperial, anti-triumphal procession of peasants would capture attention of the authorities, who were expected to put down riots, much like we are seeing now in Ukraine. Jesus had to have known what he was doing by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, what he was saying.
It is all well and good to ogle and reenact Jesus’ own procession, but how do we process into the world as a subversive community exposing systems of power and privilege? I think first we have to acknowledge them. They have to become topics of discussion. We have to name who is powerful and who is powerless.
The pomp and pride of Gaius and Nero are contrasted with the humility of Jesus, and so the pomp and pride of the world’s rich and powerful are contrasted with the humility of the world’s poor and common people. In Christ, God is not for the victor, but for the victim. God’s divine favor is not found in victory, but in humility, compassion, and service. In kenosis, emptying oneself (see the next devotion for this Sunday). Here’s the message: The salvation of the world depends upon God’s way, Christ’s way, being made manifest in the world.
What does it mean for us to participate in subversive counter-processions today? What does it mean to empty ourselves, as Paul talks about in this coming Sunday’s epistle text (Philippians 2)? What does it mean to pour ourselves out like a drink offering (2 Timothy 4:6)? As followers of Christ, we are challenged on this day and every day, to not cater to power and the powerful, but give our lives for the poor and downcast of the world. The innocent. The powerless. The children. We are challenged to reject the hatred, violence, and power plays of the world, and risk living in the humility of Jesus the crucified Jew. We are not promised that there will be no cost. We are never promised that there will be no hour of trial or a cross with our name on it. In fact, Jesus warns us that there will be persecution, by those who reject God’s ways. But in the end, there will be a crown of glory that will outshine the suffering of this world. To walk the way of the cross is to tap into the power of compassion, listening, enlightening, and emptying. It’s the power of powerlessness.
Hear Paul’s understanding of the Triumphal March (and Mary’s anointing for burial?) in 2 Corinthians (2:14-15):
…thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.
There can be no mistaking Paul’s metaphor here: Christ is the ultimate Triumphator because he has destroyed the real enemies: sin and death. Therefore, we are freed to follow the cross in Triumphal Procession all the days of our lives, until we are led to our joyful resurrection.