In churches all over the world Sunday, children marched among the aisles with palm branches, a commemoration of the first jubilant Palm Sunday. The palm branch is a symbol of triumph, waved in ancient times to welcome and extol royalty or the victorious. Palms were used to cover the paths of those worthy of honor and distinction. All four of the gospel writers report that Jesus of Nazareth was given such a tribute. Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a colt and he was greeted as king. The crowds laid branches and garments on the streets in front of him. An audience of applauders led him into the city and followed after him with chants of blessing and shouts of kingship:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
The King of Israel!
Hosanna in the highest!
The triumph of Palm Sunday is not lost on the young. Long before I could see its strange place in the passion narrative, I loved celebrating this story as a child. It was a day in church set apart from others. In a place where we were commonly asked to sit still and inconspicuous, on this day we suddenly had permission to cheer and march and draw attention.
But like many stories in childhood that grow complicated as the chapters continue, Palm Sunday is far more than a triumphant recollection of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. The convicting irony of the holiday Christians celebrate strikes with each cheer of victory, for these cheering people reenact a scene that dramatically changed in a matter of days. In less time than it takes to plan a king’s coronation, cheers of “Hosanna!” became shouts of crucifixion. The honor that was extended with palms and praises was taken back shortly after it was placed before him. The troubling reality to the triumph of Palm Sunday is that we now know the defeat of the cross is yet to come.
But it is also more than this. With Palm Sunday comes the arrival of holy week in all its darkness, in all its blinding mystery and speculation. Would I have been with the marching crowd that cheered him as king only to cheer again as he was marched to Golgotha? What can be called a fickle crowd or an illustration of the power of “mobthink,” only reminds me of my own vacillations with faith, with the one who claimed to be the Son of God. How easily declarations that he is important become denials of his existence with the turn of mood or fortune. How readily hands waving in praise and celebration become fists raised at the heavens in pain. Like a shaky palm laid down and taken back again, honor bestowed on Sunday can easily be abandoned by Wednesday.
Such are the thoughts my adult mind carries through the story in which I once took mere delight. With palms in our hands, we carry the burden of awareness that Jesus himself carried through that first crowd. Riding through the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus knew then what he knows now: This honor will be abandoned, the praises will cease, and these branches will be trampled to dust. The cross will still come.
How fitting then, I think, that in many churches the remains of Palm Sunday literally become the ashes of Ash Wednesday. The palms are burned and the ashes collected. Then on Ash Wednesday services the following year, the ashes are used to mark foreheads with the sign of the cross, a reminder of one’s humanity, the beginning of another journey toward the mysterious man on the cross.
This Sunday the church invited the world to remember the one who comes into the midst of a very fickle humanity—duplicity, defeat, violence, injustice, pain, and all. He comes near to good and bad intentions, near the ashes of what was meant to be honor, the ruins of attempts on our own. And despite our oscillating thoughts, despite the sin we cannot leave, he invites us into a disruptively different sort of story of defeat. The Son has made his triumphal entry. And yet he comes to bring us the cross, to the one sacrifice that speaks to the world’s pain.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.