A Day to Celebrate?
Have you ever heard the advice if they're running you out of town grab a baton and act like you're leading a parade? Is that what happened on Palm Sunday? Was Jesus really being welcomed or was He just acting that way? The people in the text seem to welcome Him, yet something else is there. Something dark, something foreboding, something hard to celebrate. Is this then a day to celebrate?
Well, it begins with a triumphal procession, doesn't it? Where else in Jesus' life is He welcomed as a conquering king? Where else did He ride in with the pageantry, the royalty, the praises that He rode into Jerusalem with on Palm Sunday? In fact, the Gospels never tell us Jesus rode anywhere else. Only today does Jesus ride, and today, He has a welcome fit for the true king of the Jews that He is. People tear down branches strewing them across His path. People throw down one of their few articles of clothing for Jesus' donkey to walk on. People cry "Hosanna" which means "save us." What a day to celebrate!
We reenacted the triumphant entry of Jesus this morning. We sung "all glory laud and honor to Thee Redeemer, King." We waved our palms as we came into the sanctuary. We celebrated. We honored our King of kings, our Lord of lords. Yet, in our celebrating, there is something a little silly, a little foolish. And it's meant to be here because there was pathos, there was tragedy, there was irony in the first Palm Sunday.
You will clearly see this if you picture a full grown man riding a donkey colt. His feet skim the ground. He looks comical. Interestingly enough, this aspect of Palm Sunday has always been in the celebration. From the 300s when Palm Sunday was first celebrated in Jerusalem the donkey has been part of the procession. In Jerusalem, the bishop rode the donkey. In Germany, they made a wooden donkey on wheels, called a Palmesel, and it bore on its back a figure of Jesus.
The Palmesel and the live donkey were part of a procession which always originated outside of the main church and made its way into it. This little procession was the one time the public saw the Church doing anything. And it was silly. A little band of people, just like us, singing praises to their God in the open air where their voices were easily swallowed, waving not guns or swords but flimsy palm leaves, and the God they sung praises to, processed in honor of, was depicted sitting on a jackass with His feet scraping along the ground.
This scene is something out of Blazing Saddles; it's a skit fit for Saturday Night Live or Mad TV. Conquering kings rode horses not donkeys. They came into cities to make others die, not die for others. They rode into cities to make others suffer, not suffer for others. Conquering kings rode into cities to make others shed their blood, not shed their blood for others.
Our king rides a donkey colt, and this ignominy, this ironic shame has not been lost on the world. In some Muslim countries, Christians were not allowed to ride horses but only donkeys and mules as a sign of degradation. The Romans called Christians asinair, ass-drivers. On the walls of the imperial page's quarters in Rome is found a crude drawing of a man's body nailed to a cross. His head is that of a donkey's. Scrawled below it are the words, "Alexamenos worships his god."
A day to celebrate? It must be; look, the purple altar paraments are gone. The altar paraments are the first key to the theme of the service. The altar, the pulpit, the lectern, and the pastor are decked out in a particular color. Just as stop lights say different things with their different colored lights, so do paraments. Purple is the color for repentance and sorrow. It's been the color of our services since Lent began on Ash Wednesday because Lent is a time of sorrowing over our sins. But the purple paraments are gone not to come back into the Church till the penitential season of Advent begins in December. Purple reminds us of our sins; purple sticks our noses in our sinfulness like you stick a naughty puppy's nose in his messes.
Thank God the purple is gone. Palm Sunday is a day to celebrate but what's with the red? The real color for today is scarlet, which is bright red towards the orange side. Scarlet is only used during Holy Week. It symbolizes the Lord's Passion. Passion is a popular word today. You're supposed to have passion for your hobby, for the environment, for the needy, etc. You're supposed to be passionate about whatever you do. The Lord's Passion refers to His intense, extreme, suffering for sins during Holy Week. It's not that Jesus was passionate about paying for your sins but that He passionately suffered to do it. He was broken in Gethsemane, beaten by the Church, shamed by the State, damned by God, and crucified by us all.
Scarlet is called for because it speaks to the paradox going on today. A triumphal king comes to die for His subjects. Scarlet is both a symbol of royalty and a symbol of suffering. The redness reminds us of blood. Not our blood, but Jesus'. We're not really done with getting our noses stuck in the disgusting mess of our sins, but the emphasis shifts to Jesus getting not just His nose stuck but His back, arms, legs, body and soul stuck not just in our sins but under them.
A day to celebrate? We do have a triumphal procession but it's tinted with humility and ironic pathos. We do go from purple to scarlet but royalty is stained with bloodshed. Well, at least we can celebrate Jesus being recognized by the world. Look at the text. The crowds recognized Jesus as Lord, Savior, and the Prophet. No one's taking up stones to stone Him. No one's denouncing Him as a vile Samaritan or as a demon. They recognize Jesus for what He truly is. Isn't this something to celebrate?
This recognition continues even today. Watch the news tonight, read the paper today. For the first time since His birth, the world takes note of our Savior and Lord. Though there are millions more Christians than any other faith group in this country, you would think we were in the minority for the lack of stories, at least positive ones about us. But not today. Today you'll hear, "Christians around Austin marked Palm Sunday today, the day Christians believe Jesus rode into Jerusalem." They might even add that Christians believe Jesus entered to begin His suffering for their sins.
But even you and I would cringe if they followed the story correctly. It would be great if Palm Sunday was just about Jesus being hailed as Lord, Savior, and the Prophet. But Jesus is the Lord of donkeys! Yes, that's what Jesus literally says. When sending the disciples to get the donkeys, Jesus tells them if anyone says anything tell them, "The Lord of them has need." Of course, this shows the Man Jesus is the God of all creation, but again it's tinged, tinted, touched with humbleness. What do you think would happen if you depicted the Muslim prophet Mohammed riding on a donkey too small for him? Yet, Jesus willing shows Himself that way.
At least His being Savior is something to celebrate. Yes, those of us saved from our sins, from Satan, and from ourselves, rightly celebrate everything about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But see how this looks to those outside of the faith. Jesus saves by sacrificing Himself. He saves us by giving Himself in our place. You deserve to be arrested for real crimes that nobody but God knows you've done. You deserve to be slapped, beaten, whipped, spat on, stripped of your clothes and led naked to a cross. You deserve the nails to be pounded in deep. You deserve to hang in hell for all eternity as Jesus did on that cross. But because He did you don't.
You see what I just did? I slipped into speaking of how joyous the self-sacrificing of Jesus is to us who are saved, but that's not how it looks to the world. Sure people offered branches and the clothes off their back for Jesus to ride over, but none offered their bodies. In some places when a renowned Muslim cleric enters a town on horseback, the devout Muslims throw their bodies down in front of him so his horse can ride over them. But what happens in Christianity? Who gets thrown under the horses of sin, death, and the devil? Not the crowd of sinners, not Judas the betrayer, not Peter the denier, not you the sinner, but Jesus the Savior, the Holy One of God.
Well, no one can take being THE Prophet away from Jesus. We can still celebrate that. Yes, we can, but the world won't get it. The prophesies of Mohammed are about how non-Muslims should and will suffer under Allah's wrath. What does Jesus' prophesy about this last week of His life? How his best friend will betray Him. How His second best friend will deny Him. How all of His followers will abandon Him in His darkest hour. O Jesus does speak of His resurrection, but it's all but swallowed in the gathering gloom. There it is on the distant horizon, but it doesn't appear as a sun rising into full view, but one about to set never to be seen again.
So we have mixed emotions about this week. Something wonderful, yet terrible is happening this week. Jesus is going unjustly to the cross, which is terrible, but since the cross He goes to is our just deserts, it is wonderful. Every blow, every lash, every drop of spit and of God's wrath lands squarely on innocent Jesus; that's terrible. But because they land on Jesus to pay for our sins that means they cannot land on us to pay for our sins. No pain, affliction, fear, or trouble you feel is there to make you pay for your sins; that's wonderful.
We have no choice but to live with mixed emotions this week. The early church did too. Chrysostom called this coming week "the Great Week" because of the great things the Lord worked for us sinners. Others called it "the Black Week" because of what our sins caused Jesus to suffer. So sometimes this week will be Great; other times it will be Black. This is the life of people who are saints before God for Jesus' sake and yet still sinners. We find ourselves with Great feelings of salvation and Black feelings of our sins. We will have both till Easter finally dawns and a radically new day begins. Till then we celebrate our salvation even as we mourn our sinfulness. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (20060409); Matthew 21: 1-11