From the editor: March 27, 2015

Palms for a Sunday

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Outside Jerusalem, a palm tree, basking in the late afternoon sun, green fronds gently swaying in the wind, is about to lose some of its foliage to members of a crowd acclaiming a new Messiah. Hence the name "Palm Sunday" is given to the Sunday before Good Friday.

It has become customary to point out the fickleness of the crowd that welcomes Jesus on Sunday but calls for his crucifixion on Friday. Think of how palm fronds are blown back and forth by the wind.

John is the only evangelist to mention palms. Matthew says, "most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees..." Mark says, "many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields." Luke says, "They spread their garments on the road," but he says nothing about branches, palm or otherwise.

Who decided to call it Palm Sunday and why not Garment Sunday? We have the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria's account of the observance of Palm Sunday in Jerusalem:

And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old.

So St. John's palms caught on, but not the garments. Throwing one's coat down on a dusty road to be trodden upon by a donkey or a procession of worshippers is not as appealing as waving palm fronds or olive branches.

Back in the first century, what went through the minds of the crowd as Jesus passed by to loud Hosannas? What were they hoping this new messiah would bring? James and John had asked about positions of power in the new kingdom. Some saw the Messiah as someone to tweak the noses of the religious leaders; or a new king who could dole out bread even if no circuses; or a leader to stand up to the Romans. Did Judas, coins clinking in the purse, wonder how Jesus might exploit his popularity with the crowd? Religious leaders complained that Jesus was unstoppable, "Look, the whole world has gone after him." Judas surprised them with a chance to stop him.

Or so they thought. Jesus was unstoppable on His mission. He had arranged for the donkey to ride and said if the crowds were silent even the stones would cry out. He cleansed the Temple on Monday, took control (see Mark 11:16!), then taught with authority, winning every challenge to his authority. He arranged for the Last Supper and gave us the True Bread. He prayed in Gethsemane, then healed the ear of an assailant. He informed the Roman Pilate he had no power over him, and then Pilate saw he had no control over the mob unless he did as Jesus had predicted he would.

That Palm Sunday Road, strewn with garments, led to Golgotha, where Jesus' garments were thrown down. The New King was about to be elevated. James and John were not enthroned on either side with him, but only two thieves. One blasphemed, the other saw that Jesus was about to win the Kingdom, defeating first sin, then death itself.

Our response? Throw off the garments of the old Adam, and become clothed with the new Adam, Christ. Then, pick up the palms of victory. Hosanna in the highest!

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James