This week we celebrate Palm Sunday. For many including clergy, biblical scholars, and theologians Palm Sunday is an awkward holiday. First, since it is this huge celebration right before Easter some feel as if it takes away from the message of Easter. Second, much like the first, many worry that because most people jump from Palm Sunday to Easter they skip over the passion that sets an important context for the resurrection. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, while it is witnessed in all four gospels, each witness gives a very different interpretation of the story. This leaves many in a quandary as to how to have a faithful witness of this day.
Unlike Christmas, which enters the Christian Calendar as a holy day much later in history, Palm Sunday is also not an initial celebration of the church. However, it enters the Christian Calendar fairly early in the tradition, around the fourth century. Like many Holy Days, the celebration of the palms was fairly devoid of the contemporary pomp and circumstance. Rather it was a pilgrimage, usually public, carrying the palms that symbolized the Christ’s victory over evil. The history of how we have celebrated Palm Sunday also leads to the awkwardness of the celebration because it has evolved into something that could very easily be seen as a stand-alone holiday almost trumping Easter.
So what the lectionary and many churches have done to step back from the pomp and celebration of Palm Sunday is to cram the entire holy week into the Sunday before Easter. As you can imagine, often these services are far more “educational” then spiritual or even inspirational. While there is a lot to be said for making convenience, there is something very real and important to each day of holy week. Moreover, there is something about the story of Palm Sunday that causes every individual to ask where they are in the crowed and examine themselves one more time to ask where they stand.
The four accounts of the story are very different, In Matthew the people in Jerusalem do not know who Christ is, and need to ask. In Mark, it was kind of like a parade that processed though town and left. In Luke, Jesus recognizes and names the reality that if had he not come into town with the fanfare, he would certainly be killed. Finally, John, as it usually does, is the most blatant. In John the crowd is not necessarily followers or “believers” as is alluded to in Mark, or citizens of Jerusalem as getting wrapped up in the fanfare of Matthew, but rather the crowd that witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus. This meant that the crowd was becoming almost sycophantic to the point that the Pharisees witness, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”  which leads to plotting as to how they might take Christ down.
One thing that all four Gospels agree on is that whatever happened on that day, it was part of the preparation and it was never supposed to be equal to Easter. More then anything Palm Sunday was set aside to be a day of deep reflection witnessing to Christ along with reflecting on where we stand with God.
As we recognize that I all of the accounts, the same people that celebrated Christ were just as quickly persecute Him during the passion. This is something that we must ask ourselves, could we have been one who turned their backs on Christ? This is why I always like to celebrate Palm Sunday because it asked me in my joy and celebration, do I put God first?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen