The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

Palm Sunday 2021

Among the many things that we are missing now due to COVID is… the parades! In Toronto, we used to mark every occasion from Santa’s arrival to celebrating Pride Week by gathering on our streets, and in this, we were not at all unique. Even centuries ago, victorious emperors returned to Rome in triumphal processions, driving magnificent golden chariots through the masses of spectators. The Jewish festivals also drew nation-wide pilgrimages into Jerusalem. Passover, or the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, was attended by all Jewish males in compliance with the requirement to “appear before the Lord three times a year” (cf Ex. and Deut.).

Today, many of us long to experience again this collective energy of the multitudes, united by an exciting cause, and we can still understand and imagine it very well. So what was it like to be on the streets of Jerusalem on that one Passover celebration that we remember today?

The atmosphere of festive exhilaration must have reigned over the city. It is estimated that over 250,000 lambs were slain each Passover, and one lamb could represent as many as ten worshippers, so you can imagine how crowded the place was. The religious leaders must have been busy: the Sadducees working in the Temple, and the Pharisees teaching in the streets and synagogues, asserting their authority in spite of the focus on the Temple worship. The Roman soldiers roamed the city on a lookout for trouble; half expecting to quell a riot, half mocking the people who brought sacrifices to the “unseen god” who required no statues to worship him.

And then a word gets out that Jesus is about to enter the city gates. Of course, as a Jewish male, Jesus would be expected in Jerusalem that day. But the people gathered there were, for some reason, really excited to see him enter the gates! In fact, all four Gospel writers recorded this event, so it must have been really important. We need to understand why the crowd, already charged with the usual carnival enthusiasm, all of a sudden starts throwing down their cloaks and palm branches in Jesus’ path. By the way, just picture the looks on Roman soldiers’ faces: how parochial, how simple is this mob that it is satisfied with a king riding on a donkey colt, in contrast to their own destriers!

Well, the crowd has heard of a man who cured the lame, sick, blind, and possessed, and even raised Lazarus from the dead within just the past few days. So, some people might have been there for the show, to find out if the rumors were true and maybe to see if they could get in on another free dinner party. Others must have regarded Jesus as a prophet, sincerely wanting to find out more about the person who made these extraordinary things happen. Some must have truly wanted to “see Jesus”, hardly daring to believe that this could, perhaps, actually be the Messiah they were promised. So many called him the Son of David, and appealed to him, saying, “Save us!”

Now, what often happens on Palm Sundays is that we, too, think to ourselves, “Hosanna! Jesus saved us”… great! Lent will be over in a few days, and this is the first installment of the two-part celebration series. We will warm up by waving palm branches today, and “stay tuned” for the big event next week. But what Jesus does next, after his triumphant entry, shows us that to skip Holy Week is to misunderstand Easter.

Remember, once Jesus enters the city, rather than hanging out on the streets, reveling in the praise bestowed onto him by the crowds, he goes straight to the Temple. That part is not surprising, given that everyone is there for the Feast. However, instead of piously bringing a sacrifice, Jesus wreaks utter havoc: he overturns the tables, releases the sacrificial birds, and chases the moneychangers with the whip… the Good Shepherd gets angry! And then he heals more of the sick and blind.

This would have surprised everyone: the curious, the hesitant, the believers, the legalistic religious leaders, and the skeptical soldiers. The only people who seemed to have been totally at ease with all of these developments were the children, who continued to praise him.

In which category of the Palm Sunday onlookers do you and I belong today? Whichever one it is, now is the time to let Jesus “cleanse the temple” in preparation for the new life to take root -- for the light of the resurrection to illuminate its every corner. Holy Week is not just for the clergy or extra devout, but for all of us to consider what happens to us in “between Sundays”.

When do we get to wash each other’s feet and share the meals, witness the many betrayals taking place in our own gardens, and bear our own cross? We keep a Vigil together with those who mourn the pain and deaths in the broken world, for every one of us is both the cause and participant in the agony of Good Friday. Yet, even as we doubt, and fear, and wish that this cup would pass us by, the shared hope of the resurrection is ours also.

I suggest that Holy Week is a good time to reflect on how we live out our God-given purpose in the midst of the “now and not yet” of God’s Kingdom on earth. How do we, personally, know that Jesus is risen, even as we experience the cleansing and healing? What do we do with the treasure of Good News entrusted to us - how do we live more like the child who continues to sing the “Hosannah”, even as everyone else in the Passover crowd moves on to their own troubles, or worse, blames Jesus for them?

Our Palm Sunday celebration is, indeed, a foretaste, a prism through which we may look at the Passion of Christ and Easter that lies beyond. But we don’t skip directly from one to another: you know that these palm branches we use today, we will burn next year to create the ashes we will apply, again, in recognition of our humanity and repentance. So as we enjoy the celebration today, let’s be reminded that we are not there yet to gaze at the empty tomb.