Last week millions of people around the world celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. People put on green. They imbibed, and ate corn beef. The sounds of the bagpipes blasted our ears. And there were parades. Bands marched. Dignitaries rode by swathed in sashes. And clans, organizations, and families, gathered together to join in the revelry.
Yesterday, around the country, and even around the globe, people gathered at the call of young people for a “march for our lives”—a protest against gun violence. Signs were made. Invitations went out. People boarded buses and trains, or met with others at designated spaces. To chant, and walk, and make their voices, their feelings, heard. There is something about the power of your single voice joined with others, your feet marching in step with others, your personal beliefs mirrored in a sea of faces. No wonder people have used marches as a way of garnering attention, of making a point, of moving the conscience of a nation.
From the Salt March of Ghandi, to the civil rights marches like the one from Selma to Montgomery, the idea of people crying out for justice in a physical way, is imprinted on our cultural memory. And this has been so for thousands of years.
I have never quite thought of Palm Sunday as Jesus’ March before. Certainly Palm Sunday was a parade—joyously people were celebrating the arrival of the one they thought would make life better for them. “Hosanna, Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” And I have come to understand that this parade might have had political implications—proclaiming Jesus Messiah meant putting him above the rulers from Rome (a dangerous thing to do). So Palm Sunday wasn’t just a quaint parade, putting on your Easter best and showing off your Easter bonnets. It was more like those justice marches, meant to make a statement, meant to create some feeling of power through numbers, meant to make a disturbance.
And now one more image of marches floats into my consciousness. The goose-stepping row upon row upon row of soldiers. The drive-by of tanks and missiles and other hardware. The salute by artillery. The show of force. This is another type of parade, of “march.” It is the image we see in films depicting not just today, but olden days. The parades of forces before Hitler. The military precision of the British forces on American soil. The deadly passion of the crusaders of the Middle Ages. And before that, the phalanxes from the Roman Empire.
This type of parade, of march, wasn’t about joyful celebration. It wasn’t about justice. It was about power. It was a demonstration of who was in charge, who had the most toys, who would win the war. It was an intimidation tactic. “Don’t go up against this,” it warned. You will lose. You will lose big.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have reimagined Palm Sunday for us. We, as people of faith, have spent so much time focused on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, we may have forgotten what else was happening in the world at that time. As Jesus was mounting a colt, and riding into the city from the east, another procession was massing at the western side. There would have been Rome’s military might: cavalry, and foot soldiers, and Pilate leading the troops. They would have marched into town, as they always did at the high holy days. They came to make sure there was order. They came to make sure there was no uprising while all these people were gathered supposedly for religious purposes. And they came to rub the people’s noses in their own pathetic situation: ruled by the Great Empire of the day, an empire with an emperor who called himself “the Son of God.” “Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternate vision, the kingdom of God.” (Borg/Crossan The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem, mentioned in Seasons of Spirit commentary).
Seen from this bird’s eye view, it seems impossible that these two forces—one from the east, one from the west; one about power and violence, one about peace and salvation—wouldn’t meet in a fight that heralded death. I’m not sure that those who participated in that first Palm Sunday understood the stakes. I’m not sure those of us who celebrate today do either.
But Holy Week, which starts right now, tries to remind us that this following Jesus thing isn’t all fun and games. This procession with palm branches, and a borrowed colt, and shouts of “Hosanna” puts us on a collision course with the powers and principalities of this world. Because they don’t want to give up power over anything—certainly not our hearts and minds. There will always be an empire, jealously guarding the status quo. There will always be those who cannot abide the impertinence of justice, the unwaveringness of hope, the unsquashableness of God’s message of love.
That isn’t to rain on our Palm Sunday parade. Today is a day of joy and celebration. The Messiah is in the building. But the storm clouds are gathering. The subliminal spooky music is beginning to make itself heard. Things have been set in motion that will come to a climax. And we know God’s movement toward justice and righteousness is like a glacier. It may move slowly. It may take what seems like eons. But eventually, it will cover everything that thought it could stand in its way.
So we are invited today to join in. To wave our Palm branches, and shout with every breath we take. We are invited to hail our Messiah, the son of David, the one blessed of the Lord. We are invited to add to those throughout the world, throughout the ages, who have joined this happy chorus.
Today is Palm Sunday. And next Sunday will be Easter. These are God’s days. Days when we tell the good news of God’s love. Days when we repeat the truth that with God nothing is impossible. Days when we hold on for dear life to the promises, the covenant, the relationship that we have with God. For inbetween those God days, come the rest of time.
Time when we are destined to be in the fight, destined to be in the trenches, destined to see the nitty-gritty of poverty and suffering and death. Those inbetween days are brutal, intolerable, crushing, scary, heart and soul-numbing, inescapable, paralyzing, and the description could go on and on. We need God days to counterbalance the scales, even if just a little bit. We need God days to lift the veil from our eyes, and the press from our hearts. We need God days to give us strength for the journey, and courage for the fight, and wisdom of the final outcome.
And we need Holy Week, to remind us that in those inbetween days, Jesus is still with us, God is still with us. Through all the muck, all the nitty-gritty, all the low points, all the dashed plans, all the disappointments, all the deep breaths to start again, all the pain, all the suffering, even all the death. As a favorite song of mine says, “We are not alone; God is with us.”
Jesus’ relentless march, a march not just for our lives but for our souls and our world, begins in earnest today. And we are invited to stand at the sidelines and cheer him on. And we are invited to take off our garments, something of value to us, and lay it at his feet, to help him in his cause. And we are invited to feel the swell of emotion, experience the throng. And finally, we are invited to step out of our safe, comfortable place there on the side of the street, and venture into the road, into the action, to step by step follow our Lord.
We know where it leads. And yet, isn’t that where we want to be? In the parade? At the table? In the garden? At the trial? Beneath the cross? On the path to the tomb? Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” As the hymn says, “Jesus, priceless treasure, Source of purest pleasure, Truest friend to me…” That’s what I’ll be singing as I step off the curb and step into the march toward the kingdom of God.
May it be so for all of us. Amen and Amen.