It is spring here in Richmond. We have a few days of hot weather, just enough to convince the flowering trees and shrubs to burst forth in glorious color, and then we have days of miserable chilly damp which leaves the blossoms drooping like sad rags. We have dogwoods and camellias and now even azaleas in Crayola pinks and whites and reds. And then we have cars covered with seas of green pollen, so bad that our eyes itch and we sneeze all day long.
Then the weather turns again and the sun shines. It’s like a whipsaw. Back and forth, one way and then the other.
That is the same tension we face today in this service of Palm Sunday. Glorious spring, miserable weather. Triumphant crowds cheering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, strewing Palm branches on his path so that his beast of burden need not tread on mere dust. And then, suddenly, the air grows chill, the celebration is over, and Jesus is a criminal on the road to an ignominious death.
There is hardly enough time to get used to the idea of being the cheering crowd, processing into the church singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” before we are crying out “Crucify him!”
What happened to a gentle and graceful path from one season to the next? What happened to the calm path from the place outside the gates of Jerusalem to the Resurrection?
It’s not a calm path, of course. We know the story, both in our weather reports, one day hot, one day not, and in Jesus’ final days, one day held up as long-awaited King, the next arrested, tortured and killed.
It is a rocky and uneven path. And we know how it’s going to end, but that doesn’t make the head-snapping shift from elation to degradation and death any less painful.
Why do we hear the story of the passion today, when it is the day called “Palm Sunday?” Why do we rush ahead to the rest of the story? Can we not be granted a few days of sunshine, of the glory moment when we can celebrate our recognition of Jesus as the anointed one? Can we not be the “good guys” on this day, waving our palms to honor Jesus? Why do we have to shift the scene to the damp chill of arrest and whipping and nailing to the Cross? Our heads and our hearts snap back at the shock of it, don’t they?
One of my colleagues, on our clergy retreat on Thursday, referred to our reading of the passion narrative on Palm Sunday as something akin to a movie trailer. This is the sneak preview of what will happen over the rest of the week. Don’t get comfortable in your seats, with your palm frond tucked neatly in your prayer book or purse. Something shocking, more shocking than the latest scary movie, is going to happen, and here’s the preview.
And that’s the truth of it. We cannot get complacent in our palm-waving joy. Ours must be an ironic joy. We have to be aware of what the rest of the week brings. We have to brace ourselves for the poignant beauty of the last supper, of the institution of the meal we replicate each week at this altar, with the command to “do this in remembrance of me.” We have to force ourselves to look at the disciples dozing off as Jesus prays, to watch the horror of what is inflicted on Jesus by the powers of oppression in Jerusalem, at his broken body on the cross, with only a few brave women and one beloved disciple to stand with him at the end. We have to live in that Good Friday when the only good is the gift of Jesus’ death, an awful and awesome price paid for our souls. We have to float in that painful, liminal Saturday space, when we hurt so deeply and yet sense that something is coming that will turn our grief into amazement.
We celebrate today, but as with the change of season, we brace ourselves for the rocky path from winter to summer , a springtime with joy and pain, heat and chill, joy and sadness. We’ve seen the previews before.
Our story today is the first step on the rocky path, with a preview of what is waiting for us in the week ahead.
Wave the palm in joyful celebration, but be ready for what is to come. Come and pray this week and live into the steps of that rocky path. On Maundy Thursday, when we hear the command to love one another and to remember what Christ did. On Good Friday, when we weep and rage at what has been done to him. In expectation on Saturday, in that in-between place between grief and hope.
Then, and only then, are we ready for what Easter brings. Then, and only then, do we have the right to once again rejoice and lift our voices in hosannas. Then, and only then, does the Resurrection make sense to us.
The path is rocky, and we will walk it together, with Jesus just ahead of us. We know what to expect, and we have no excuses.
I will see you in church this week.