Palm Sunday: Triumph, Need and Betrayal Laid on the Altar

It all begins today.

Today is the first day of Holy Week, the beginning of our journey in real time with Jesus from the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem all the way to the Cross on Calvary.

How do we get from one to the other?

What happens between now and then for everything to go so terribly wrong?

What happens to us to drive us from hailing him as our matchless king with the crowds on Palm Sunday, to crying “Crucify him!” with those same crowds on Good Friday?

Let’s start from the beginning.

We open our worship today with the Palm Gospel, Matthew 21:1-11, which tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt, with the crowds spreading their cloaks on the ground in his path, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

This is the proclamation of Jesus as the King of the Jews, his primary identity in Matthew.

This is his “election by acclamation,” so to speak, his people and his nation recognizing him as the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to prayer.

But as we know, the crowd’s love will not last. Why?

There were probably a number of reasons.

Some people were furious when Jesus failed to usher in an armed revolution against the hated oppressor, Rome.

Some took issue with his public affirmation of his identity as the Son of God, calling it blasphemous.

Others probably simply got caught up in the lust for violence that can be hair-trigger in a crowd of people, not to mention one already under the pressure of political subjugation.

I think we who comfortably go about our calm and civilized lives vastly underestimate our own capacity for violence in a large, anonymizing group of people.

And it does not take very sophisticated manipulation to turn a crowd into a mob.

What was in Jesus’ heart as he heard the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”?

Did he truly feel welcomed and loved?

Or did he already know that this outpouring of passionate devotion by so many was a vain and hollow farce?

Did those words “hosanna” and “blessed” form a bitter echo of the words the angels and his mother spoke at his birth?

I picture his face, and I do see happiness. But it cannot cover up an underlying grief.

The question of Palm Sunday is a deep and painful one, and we must reckon with it honestly if we seek to enter Easter Sunday with any integrity.

It is the reality of our own faithlessness.

Can we face the truth that we are the ones who betray Jesus?

It is not just some faceless strangers in Jerusalem two thousand years ago who sign his death warrant.

It is we who do so, every time we deny his goodness in ourselves and one another, every time we have the opportunity to love and say no to it.

The problem of Palm Sunday is one of identity.

Jesus fails to fulfill the identity the crowd wants him to embody—political ruler and military leader.

And that false desire is entwined with the crowd’s false sense of self—they truly believe in this moment that they are and will continue to be loyal to him.

They will not accept Jesus’ humility, and thus cannot access the humble truth about themselves, that they will betray and abandon him along with everyone else.

It’s a vicious circle of lies and fear, demands and denial.

It creates the toxic vortex that sucks Jesus in and will end with him nailed to a Cross.

I think most of us would like Palm Sunday to sort of get lost in the blur of Holy Week.

Let’s just skip ahead to the dramatic stuff, when the machinery of the state takes over on Friday and it’s no longer our fault that Jesus is being hauled away in chains.

Or better yet, let’s just check out until Sunday and then rake in the Easter eggs and alleluias.

But spiritual growth cannot progress without integrity.

We have to stand fully in the darkness if we ever hope to see the light.

And there is a remarkable reminder of Palm Sunday every week in worship, in fact, every time we participate in Holy Eucharist.

Consider these words from the Palm Gospel: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Why do they seem so familiar? When have we heard them before?

In the Sanctus.

Every single time we celebrate Holy Communion, we say or sing the following words without fail: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

The first part is from Isaiah 6, and is meant to take us into the throne room of God.

The second part is straight from Palm Sunday.

Why? Why on earth would we evoke the moment of our ugliest false worship in the center of our ultimate act of true worship, Holy Communion?

Why would we bring up our moment of greatest faithlessness in the center of the greatest expression of our faith?

Why would we try to commune with God by speaking, even singing, the words that presage our abandonment and betrayal of God?

The Benedictus qui venit, “Blessed is he who comes,” is a small and secret earthquake of truth right in the middle of the Eucharist.

It slips by if we’re not paying attention, but it has profound and transformational meaning.

What this statement does is drag us from the beautiful throne room of God that opens the Sanctus, where we feel exalted in our praise of God, right back down to earth, to our moment of greatest failure.

Why would that be valuable?

Because it takes us right to the very heart of our desperate need for communion with God.

It reminds us of the central reason we are celebrating this sacrament.

It awakens us to the truth that we are wounded and scarred by our own sin and selfishness and pain, and we are deeply in need of the healing and sustenance offered to us in the Body and Blood of Christ.

The events of Holy Week lead us to Jesus in his deepest vulnerability, when he is so lost and alone that he cries out, asking why God has forsaken him.

The only way we can approach that sacred vulnerability of Jesus giving his life for us, is with the deepest vulnerability that exists within us.

Our failure and pain, expressed through our hollow shout of “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” is our entry onto the holy ground of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself.

Do you see how profound this moment is?

The crowd shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” was essentially the proclamation of Jesus as King. And Jesus being called the King of the Jews was what got him killed.

This false and fleeting praise that we offered was the signature on his death warrant.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”–these are the words that decisively begin the last week of Jesus’ life.

Proclaiming him as king guarantees his death—and we proclaim this in the center of the Eucharist.

It’s like ensuring his death all over again.

But it is also bringing our poverty before God and placing it right on the altar.

And those together in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit bring about something wholly new and deeply healing: the bread and wine made into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Our very fallibility is a key ingredient in our communion with God.

We cannot receive what we won’t admit we need.

The Benedictus qui venit is as much a cry of, “O God, make speed to save us, O Lord, make haste to help us,” as it is a statement of devotion.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, in that moment of saying or singing these words, we’re exposing our deep need for the Cross and the salvific work of he who hangs upon it.

And for those who make the sign of the Cross at these words in the Sanctus, this habitual ceremonial gesture takes on a new depth and urgency.

I hope that you never sing or say the Sanctus in the same way again.

I hope it always has echoes of Palm Sunday for you from here on out.

I hope it awakens in you that strange mix of ambivalent love and dark need that drives us to the altar again and again, alongside of the brighter and purer emotions that shine forth in us in worship.

And I hope that each time as you cry out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”, you see Jesus on that colt as he passes you in the streets of Jerusalem while you wave a palm.

Do not be afraid of how his eyes pierce to the very center of your soul, how they see past your illusions to the poverty-stricken truth of your depths.

Because you may see both joy and grief in his face as you tell him he is blessed.

But underlying it all, you will see love.


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