Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
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!’ (From the Palm Sunday gospel, Mark 11:1-11)
Every time I read, hear, or say those words I can’t help but think of a saying you probably know. “Be careful what you ask for.” It’s a warning we’ve probably all heard before. It’s a warning that we may not really know what we are getting into. What we see may not be what we get. And what we get may demand more than we are willing to give.
I wish today were as easy as the crowd makes it look and sound. I wish we could wave our palms, sing our hosannas, offer blessings, and then just go to lunch. But it’s not that easy. Today is the doorway into Holy Week, the last few days of Jesus’ earthly life, and it’s not an easy week.
I know that the palms in our hands today will become the ashes that mark our foreheads next year. Triumph, it seems, isn’t always what we think it is. I know that I come to this day every year with more questions than answers. There is more to this day and the coming week than I can comprehend or explain. So I always come to this day with conflicted feelings. I come with joy, anticipation, and hope but I also come with some dread, resistance, and fear. I want to trust and follow the way but I am not so sure about the suffering and dying. Holy Week is about real life stuff and it hits close to home. The truth is I am always a bit ambivalent about Holy Week. Maybe you also come with questions, conflicted feelings, and ambivalence.
If we take Holy Week seriously how could we not have some ambivalence? If we truly understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah and what triumph really looks like we might well have some questions about carrying the palms. If we realize where this parade is going and what it will ask of us we might want to pause and take another look.
You see today isn’t just Palm Sunday (Mark 11:1-11). It’s also the Sunday of the Passion (Mark 14:1-15:47). Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem will also involve an exodus, an exit. The victory parade of Palm Sunday is the funeral procession of Passion Sunday. We begin with the crowd shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We finish with Jesus giving a loud cry and breathing his last. A borrowed colt will carry Jesus to Jerusalem. A borrowed passerby will carry his cross to Golgotha. It was Simon of Cyrene but it could have been anyone and it’s meant to be everyone, you and me included. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark. 8:34)?
There are moments in each of our lives — big moments, threshold moments, life changing moments — when we need to slow down, maybe even stop, and consider what it is that we’re getting into. Are we ready for this? What does it mean? What will it ask of me? Do I have what it takes? Is this really what I want? Am I prepared for what is to come? Can I see it through to the end? Palm Sunday is one of those days.
I’m not suggesting that we ought to change our minds and avoid this week but just the opposite. We need to be present, fully present, to all this week offers. We need to show up with all that we are and all that we have.
There is so much that can be said about today and the coming week. It’s hard to know where to begin and how to make sense of it all. But here’s what I wonder. Does it need to be said? Would it make a difference? Would it answer the questions, resolve our feelings, and make this week any easier? I don’t think so. The Holy Week story is not a story to be explained or understood. It is a story to be embodied and lived. So maybe today is a day to slow down, re-group, and take a look at everything.
Isn’t that what Jesus does? According to St. Mark, “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. 11:11).
No other gospel account describes this. Only St. Mark offers us the opportunity to look around at everything. In St. Matthew’s account of the gospel Jesus immediately enters and cleanses the temple, driving out those who bought and sold, and overturning the moneychangers’ tables. According to St. Luke Jesus sees the city Jerusalem and weeps over it. Then he enters the temple and drives out the den of thieves, those who bought and sold. And in St. John’s account it’s not clear if Jesus even enters the temple. Instead, the focus is on Jesus teaching about the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies. Not so for St. Mark. At the end of the donkey ride, when the shouting is over and the last cloaks and palms have been thrown down, Jesus enters the temple, looks around at everything, and then leaves.
It’s a strange and anticlimactic ending to the what is known as the triumphal entry. Maybe, however, it’s necessary. If that’s what Jesus does maybe we should too. Maybe we need to look around at everything before we go any further into this week.
Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life. It was the center of the religious, social, political, and economic structure. The temple stands at the center of the center. It is the heart of Jewish life. That means that when Jesus entered the temple and “looked around at everything” he was looking into the very heart of the people. Isn’t that what this Lenten journey has been about?
Take a look around at everything in your heart. What do you see?
Where does it hurt? What’s the pain? In what ways are you heart broken? Are you carrying guilt? What are the sins, things done and left undone, that chain you to the past? What are your regrets? Is your heart fearful? What scares you? Are you so overwhelmed by life that it feels like you are drowning and you just want to escape? Is there self-hatred or condemnation? Do you see broken relationships? Is your heart filled with loss, sorrow, grief? What parts of you are dying? Where is your life overcome by darkness? Who are the loved ones that have died and you miss? What is the dis-ease of your heart? Take a look around at everything in your heart. That’s what Jesus did.
I don’t think he just looked around at everything, turned away, and then left. I think he looked at everything so that he might take it with him and carry it through this holy week. So must we. Jesus left nothing behind. We mustn’t either. What we refuse to look at and bring to this week cannot be healed, cannot be restored, renewed, re-created, or resurrected. So what will you carry into this week? What will you bring and offer?
The triumphal entry is not about the donkey ride, the palms, or the hosannas. The triumph is in taking a look around at everything and leaving nothing behind.