Today is Palm Sunday, the day Christians remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem as crowds lined the streets, tossing palm fronds before Jesus and giving a royal welcome for a man the people took to be their new king, on the model of King David.
The Palm Sunday readings reflect this triumphalism, proclaiming Jesus as sovereign. Philippians 2:9-11, for example, declares:
God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
For most of the history of the church, believers would attend services throughout the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, where they would hear of Jesus’ rejection by the same crowds who had welcomed him, and of his betrayal, trial, and eventual execution. These days, though, many Christians skip Holy Week and go directly to Easter. Which is to say from triumph to triumph.
So, many churches have taken to celebrating the day as “Palm Passion” Sunday. The stories of Jesus’ suffering, traditionally reserved for Good Friday, are placed next to the remembrance of his “ticker-tape” parade to remind the faithful that the path to the resurrection goes through the cross and the tomb, not happy, cheering crowds.
It’s a useful reminder for those who seek political change in their country. Many of my progressive friends have expressed frustration lately; they’d like to see things moving more quickly against the Bush administration. They begin to despair that things will ever change in our country.
I’ve taken to reminding them that success and rightness are separate things; we don’t do what is right only because we think it can carry the day. Thousands marched against the war in Iraq yesterday, the practical effect of which is almost nothing, especially with an administration as smug and entrenched as this one. So why do it? Because the war is wrong, and somebody needs to say so. We need to say so.
At the moment, this may earn us nothing more than disapproval in our community. But the memories are still there of an earlier war, when people can and did go to jail for their opposition (including Daily Kos’ own Meteor Blades). In other countries, marching against government policy is liable to get you beaten, or worse.
Yet it’s still the right thing to do. Sometimes, we must sacrifice for the good, even at a terrible cost to ourselves.
In fact, many Christians wonder if their faith calls them to exactly this kind of witness, if living on the jagged edge isn’t what belief in Christ is all about. That in turn causes many non-believers to wonder if Christianity isn’t some kind of blood-sport, a cult of death framed by an example of monstrous suffering.
I don’t believe so. A wise pastor once gave a sermon at the beginning of Lent by standing behind the church’s altar table and pointing to the small cross that stood there. In our church, he reminded the congregation, the cross is typically “empty”: there is no image of Jesus attached. But for this Lent, he continued, I want us to see that image of Jesus in his suffering: to remind us of the wrongness of what he suffered, and to remind us that that suffering continues in every person who is tortured today.
This, I think, is the key to Palm Passion Sunday: the understanding that Christ suffered not for its own sake, but to place himself with all those who suffer. And we are called to follow his example. For the glory of Palm Sunday is not the warmth of Jesus’ success, but his willingness to give up the glory, laud and honor due to him in order to suffer that others may not. Or as Paul puts it:
though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Given the suffering of the world today, how can we not do the same?