Lenten Reflections

Palm Sunday - Contrasts and Changing Fortunes

On the Sunday before Easter, Christians worldwide celebrate Palm Sunday. A practice in many countries is to hold large-scale peace rallies on the same day. Peace is the common theme to both those who celebrate Palm Sunday in a religious and liturgical manner as well as to those who do not, but who understand the significance of proclaiming the need for world peace.

Church services on Palm Sunday will follow similar rituals of people gathering, holding and waving palm fronds or other plant stems or branches. The biblical narrative accounts in the four gospels each tell it slightly differently. From their reading and understanding of the narrative, most people would be familiar with the plotline of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to hails of positive acclaim with cloaks and branches (palms) strewn on the path before him and the donkey who carries him. His entry is described as ‘triumphant’. He is referred to as ‘King’, ‘Son of David’ and ‘the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee’.

These terms are inconsistent with his mode of transport – a donkey. Why would someone regarded so highly, as Jesus is regarded and described at this point, make his entrance on a small animal of low regard – a beast of burden? Some might think ironic, others comedic. Why could Jesus simply not walk into Jerusalem? Could this have been a fulfilment of the words of the prophet Zechariah: “See where thy king comes to greet thee, a trusty deliverer; see how lowly he rides, mounted on an ass…”, or did Jesus intentionally wish to contrast his entry to that of the brutal Roman authorities who would enter Jerusalem with orchestrated and choreographed pomp and ceremony? Jesus on a donkey – an animal of peace; the Romans on horses used in battle and war. Jesus approaches Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives. The Romans would approach from the west, the same direction from which they would attack Jerusalem in a siege around 70 CE and possibly in several previous attacks as well.

Through the Palm Sunday event, Jesus continues to offer a contrast and challenge to those around him, as he does to us today: to review our beliefs, our values, our attitudes and our practices. These echo his words of the Beatitudes, his interactions with lepers and prostitutes, the unclean, the ostracised and everything that he said and did which unsettled the authorities and lawmakers of the day. After the accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the gospels relay the story of an angry Jesus entering the temple and overturning the tables of the money-changers and vendors. He literally and metaphorically ‘turned-the-tables’, and within a week he was dead. A Jesus who is hailed ‘King’, ‘Son of David’ and ‘Prophet’ one day, is betrayed, arrested, put on trial, tortured and killed a few days later. What changing fortunes!