Let these branches be for us signs of his victory.
Remember that prayer, way back in the beginning of the service?
Palm Sunday was for generations—centuries—a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, described in the reading we heard from long ago in the parish hall. It was an ironic triumph for those of us who know—as Jesus did—that for him, Jerusalem meant death. And yet, the procession was a time of celebration The promise of victory was in the air. Let these branches be for us signs of his victory.
The people along the road treat Jesus like a king, shouting Hosanna to the Son of David, their way of saying “Long live the King!” “Praise to you, our king and our redeemer!” When we process around the neighborhood, singing “all glory, laud, and honor,” we act out that part of the story as much as we act out the passion gospel we just read. And yet it is usually the passion gospel that occupies the Palm Sunday sermon. As if what we just heard needed any interpretation or reflection.
I would like to linger instead, for a few minutes, in that celebratory mode associated with Jesus’ procession through the gates of the Holy City. Let these branches be for us signs of his victory. What victory? What are we celebrating? Jesus has just finished a whole series of hard teachings and challenging conversations with his disciples. (Go home and read Matthew 20 and you’ll see what I mean.) He has called his hearers to task, challenging them to break through the existing religious structures of the day, to hear of God’s call to teach and to heal. One might say part of what we celebrate is victory over religious misunderstanding.
Jesus rides a donkey, while Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, would likely have ridden into the city on the same day through another gate. Pilate would have ridden a war horse flanked by soldiers to protect Roman interests during the Passover festival, where there was often political unrest. Jesus’ choice of the donkey is a victory over pride and political trappings. The donkey is a sign of humility.
Our reading from Philippians speaks to us of this humility, exhorts us. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. And what mind is that? What is the mind of Christ? It helps to read the two verses that precede these words. (If you all had bibles in the pews, this would be much easier. Instead, you need to use the ears God gave you. It’s the Anglican way.)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, humbled himself.
The victory we celebrate today is the victory of humility over pride. The victory over the tyranny of self. If you want to experience victory over self, do something foolish and awkward in the name of Christ. If you want to be like Jesus, ride a donkey.
There is, of course, another victory to celebrate, but we’re not there yet.
In the coming week we are invited over and over again to enter into Christ’s death. I hope many of you will join us in some or all of our Holy Week services. This Holy Week story begins with the procession on a donkey—the story we read together of Jesus’ arrest and death was tacked on midway through the last century because fewer and fewer people were coming to church on Good Friday. Who remembers when school and liquor stores all over the country were closed on Good Friday? The Passion Gospel was added to Palm Sunday because without it, people who didn’t go to church during Holy Week missed the painful and miserable death that must come before Easter.
Let us journey together through the coming week and immerse ourselves in Jesus’ suffering and death, noting glimmers of victory and hope along the way. Then when we sing, on Easter morning, “This is the feast of victory for our God,” the words will be truly meaningful.
Let these branches be for us signs of God’s victory.