This is a long story, and a difficult one, that we’ve just heard. It is, as always, a little surprising to hear this saga, which extends all the way to the death of Jesus, on Palm Sunday. After all, didn’t we just do a triumphant march into church with our palms? Aren’t we supposed to be celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem?
The answer is a resounding “Yes, but.”
Yes, we celebrate Jesus coming into Jerusalem to the adulation of the crowds. But we cannot not appreciate the exquisite irony of that ride into the city with the crowds cheering and strewing palm branches on the ground if we didn’t know how the story was going to end. It’s a feeling of the world turned upside down when we move so quickly from cheers and adulation to arrest, trial, torture, and death. And the telling of the whole story is necessary for us to understand what this week is about.
We are not used to this: when we go to the movies, we see brief trailers that give us a glimpse of movies that are coming soon, tempting us to come back to the theatre in another week or month to see what they have teased us with. The producers give us the hottest moments of the greatest excitement or pathos to draw us in.
But what do we do today? Not teasers – what will happen to the Lord next, after he gets to the city for Passover – but the whole story, every bit of it. The dinner. The praying. The fear. The arrest. The ridiculous trial, with its foreordained conclusion. The jeering. The pain. The screams of the crowd. The blood. The nails. The sour wine. The weeping mother. The sigh of death.
The whole story. Not just a sneak preview. Because we need to hear it.
Cynics will say that we read the entire Passion on Palm Sunday because it is unlikely that you will be here during the week. But I think it is something different. We read it because we have to know what we are facing in this hard, hard week.
Jesus knew that – the past few Sundays, the Gospel readings have been full of Jesus telling his disciples that what was to come was his death, before his rising in glory. That message so disturbed the disciples that Peter said, “Don’t say that!” But Jesus knew that they needed to be prepared for what was in his and their future, to brace themselves.
We, too, need to be prepared. We hear the entire passion today so that we can face what we live with this week. Not that we can become inured to it – no one could – but so that we can bear to hear it and be present to it. So that we can witness the experience of Jesus’ passion and walk with him in his pain. So that we can force ourselves to keep looking, not to cover our eyes. So that we can feel his agony as he always feels ours.
We know what will come next Sunday. We will be with Mary Magdalene and the disciples as they discover that Jesus is not in the tomb, that he is risen gloriously from the dead.
But we do not get to next Sunday directly from the palm-waving cheering crowds welcoming him to the city. First we have to remember the whole story, and relive it in all its ugliness. We have to own how we human beings failed Jesus, and how we continue to fail Jesus, and how he still was willing to carry that cross to Golgotha.
We have to earn the right to witness the empty tomb.
So we listen to the story again, from cheers to curses to the death-rattle. We force ourselves to pay attention. Only then can we see the final part of the story, not a clip from a preview, but the culmination of the most glorious of stories. Only then do we deserve what Jesus has given us. Only then can we sing songs of joy anew. Amen.