I have often wondered why we blithely refer to this launching of Holy Week as “Palm Sunday,” when clearly the ultimate focus in length and depth is quite different if not the opposite.
For many, this Sunday will focus primarily on the reading of lengthy, sorrowful accounts of the so-called Passion of the Incarnate Divine, our Savior, Jesus, the Christ. It begins with the betrayal of Jesus by affirmative misdeeds by one of Jesus’s principal disciples (Judas Iscariot), and then by the thoughtless, all too human neglect of Jesus’s other principal disciples, including the chief among them, Simon Peter.
We immerse ourselves in the details of Jesus’s arrest, arraignments (note the plural), trial, sentencing, trail of sorrows, crucifixion and death of his human affect, followed by the deposition of his earthly remains and his burial.
I submit that too often we focus on what preceded Jesus’s earthly Passion. The day’s ritual often begins with generous distribution of palm fronds leaves that we carry and wave in a procession. In ceremonious fashion linked to more ancient, first-fruits thanksgiving practices, we draw a liturgical parallel between the agricultural phenomenon of the fruits of spring returning and Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem to save God’s chosen people who are suffering under cruel subjection in Roman Palestine.
Of course, we now know in retrospect that the fruits of the palms, which can rescue us from hunger, have their true parallel in Jesus’s instructional guides for daily living — including, most importantly, Jesus’s insistence that we love one another, thereby rescuing us from moral and sociological famine.
The palms have tremendous importance on many levels — historical, that is, cultural and moral, as well as agricultural. So some reference to them seems warranted. However, it remains the case that what most underscores the role of this observance is the parallel reference to Jesus’s ultimate self-sacrifice — his crucifixion in defense of his call for us to love — which is so important, he was willing to die to get the point across.
I should also remind you that Jesus’s hearty welcome into Jerusalem has theological “charm.” The point I wish to make may be obvious: The account of the triumphal entry is a warning that extravagant acclaim by the public is often followed, possibly swiftly, by condemnation by the same public, regardless whether either acclaim or condemnation is warranted.
So I leave you with this admonition: Do not be “false friends,” praising one day and condemning the next. And beware of this if it is directed at you. Remember that the danger of betrayal is, sadly, always real, and perfidy is to be expected and scarcely ever avoided.
Have a holy Sunday (or other Sabbath) of the Passion and be tolerant of the seeming misnomer “Palm Sunday,” which is not entirely wrong in emphasis … just somewhat so. Most important, respect the towering, ironic truth embedded in the prayer: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is Washington National Cathedral Priest Scholar and Chaplain and member of the Dean’s Council and Service Rotas; he previously served as Bishop’s Dean/Sub-Dean for St. Thomas and St. John and vicar and assistant priest for several congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.).