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“Reclaiming the Symbols of Lent: Palms”

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 

They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.  Mark 11: 1-11

Heather Murray-Elkins tells this story about she and her husband taking their child to an old monastery to explore:

It had been quite a hike, helping a toddler up an overgrown trail of North Carolina sticks and stones. The deserted monastery had been intentionally set apart from the highway traffic. The years of disuse had heightened its cloistered walls of isolation. We, a family of three, had driven as far as possible, then parked and traveled on foot like pilgrims to a shrine.

We had been tempted on the journey by an offer of relics. The long abandoned retreat center was scheduled for a corporate takeover. The architect had offered its garden-variety statues to anyone who managed to move them before the dozers reduced them to rubble. My husband and I packed up one child and a picnic and went in search of religion and art. 

The magnitude of our mistake was obvious once we reached the monastery’s grounds. The classic forms would require the strength of cranes, not the rescue efforts of two adults, one child, and an old VW. No amount of Protestant good will could protect these larger than life saints from the same iconoclastic fate as their 16th century counterparts. My pragmatic partner shrugged off the loss and prepared to fix lunch.  Daniel, our four-year-old and I joined forces and went exploring. What we discovered continues to surprise me.

In the center of the garden, stood a crucifix. Even in its abandoned state, it dominated the scene. I eyed its height and signed a dismissal. Too big. Too bad. I lifted Daniel for our retreat. The stiffness of my child stopped my turn. He had turned to stone. His eyes were like x-rays, restlessly scanning the body. From the shock on his face, I realized he had never seen one of these before. Every cross he had ever seen had been empty. This one was not empty. This one was filled with the dying agony of a good strong man.

“Jesus?” he questioned, eyes on the form. “Jesus.” I answered, turning away. Suddenly, my child exploded in action and sound. “Take him down!” he shouted. He began pushing against my shoulder, to move me, to move himself. “Take him down! Take him down!” Take him down? When had I learned to take this posture of Jesus for granted? Who taught me to see the text of Jesus as naturally etched in blood?

“Take him down!” Against my useless, “I can’t take him down,” his lament traveled higher, refusing control.  I collided with his dad, exploding out of the bushes, prepared to defend his son against danger. We took turns trying to comfort, to carry, to explain. But the load was heavier than we expected. 

How do we learn to cover our ears against the shattering cry of “My God, My God?”  Do we need to have our ears opened? If the sag of death’s gravity only appears like a curve in the stone, then where do we go to have our eyesight corrected?

Today begins Holy Week. A week that is marked on one end with a parade of palms, singing, chanting, and celebrating; and on the other end with destruction, death and then resurrection. It is a week we have ritually recognized on an annual basis. One of the dangers of a ritualized narrative is the way its edges become smooth. There is a hypnotic naturalness to the old, old story. This is the way things are done; this is how we have remembered for hundreds of years. We can do it with our eyes closed.

This is a week when a celebrating crowd, waving Palm branches becomes a crucifying crowd in a short time…

·       A week when a King hailed becomes a King mocked;

·       A week when a cheering becomes a jeering;

·       A week when living gives way to dying;

·       A week when brokenness becomes wholeness;

·       A week when perfection becomes resurrection;

·       A week when terror turns to amazement

·       A week where a welcome guest becomes a beaten criminal

·       A week when palm branches swaying with the crowd turn into bent reed crosses.

And during all of it, are we glancing at the crucified Christ and thinking of art, of beauty, of form and line? Are we part of the parade crowd singing Hosanna and waving palm branches? And then part of the crucifixion crowd? Or are we screaming at the injustice, the cruelty, the pain, and the horror, “Take him down?”

“Take him down!” should be our natural response. When we take Jesus’ posture on the cross for granted, its salvation power has been lost on us. When we become deadened to the death of Jesus, our neighbors and ourselves, we have joined our voices with the taunting of the spectators. The yearly procession of palms must not be routine. It is not sufficient to simply sing the words–we must catch the undertones!

What progressive Christians believe is the One who created us has a different ending in mind all together.  “Take them down!” God commands. “Take away the violence, the hatred, the horror! No more is there to be a Waco, a Columbine, an Oklahoma City, a Pulse Nightclub shooting, a Sandy Hook Elementary School, a horrific ending. Take them down!”

Being part of the Palm Sunday crowd is going to the River Festival parade, eating food from the concession stands, enjoying the parade, cheering on the bands, watching the parade go by, and then packing up for the evening. Later in the week, going back for more River Fest activities and never thinking about the fact that while tens of thousands of dollars are being spent at the food court... there are homeless and hungry people living on the same streets where River Fest is being held. But our response needs to be like the boy’s response. We need to notice the people everyone else has forgotten! We need to see what is unseen. 

Being part of the Palm Sunday crowd is visiting a city somewhere in Alaska, or in Venice, or the Great Barrier Reef, that may not exist in the very near future because the water table is rising or the effects of climate change will overtake it. You go because you want to see it; but you know that by going you are contributing to the decline and destruction of the very thing you wish to see. Palm Sunday people are fickle people. But our response needs to be like the boy’s response. We need to notice and see what is unseen.

The people and the places and the situations that are so easily dismissed? So easily ignored? These are the very ones we are called to notice! 

You see, the story does not end with this Sunday. The story does not end with the parade and the chanting voices. The story does not end with the palms or even the cross. Did you know that the palms from one year become the ashes for the next year’s Lenten journey? That our palms from today become the ashes for Ash Wednesday next year? This is a resurrection in and of itself. Palms to crosses to ashes. Transformation.

We are like the fickle crowd of Jesus’ day…the same crowd that celebrated him one day in the city and then abandoned him a few days later at the cross. This is not a statement about guilt. This is a statement to motivate us to do better. The palm leaves we wave symbolically today motivate us to take notice of what is behind the irony of the day–to notice the symbol…to look beyond the parade and to see the pain…to see the suffering…to see what is unseen. That is what Palm Sunday is all about!


Resources Used:

 Murray-Elkins, Heather.  “A Different Design”  March 27, 1994. 

“The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary” vol. VII.  Abingdon Press.  2015.