When the bandwagon meets reality: Palm Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 11:1–10:

When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately on entering it, you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone should say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ reply, ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.’” So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it. So they brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks over it. And he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!”

Today’s main Gospel reading tells the story of Christ’s Passion in the long tradition Palm Sunday. The Passion prepares us for the Resurrection, the core of our faith, to remind us of the tremendous sacrifice our Lord made to rescue us all from sin. The processional reading, however, reminds us more of our reluctance to be rescued, at least under terms other than our own.

By the time of His entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus had become hailed as a conquering hero. He had brought the dead back to life, healed the sick, driven out demons, and taught with compelling authority throughout Israel. Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah to that point, as the Judeans understood them, and they were in the mood for conquering.

“Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!” they shouted. They understood Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as the harbinger of a new earthly Davidic kingdom. They cheered for their vision of the Messiah — a mighty warlord who would return the temple to its status as the center of the world, and with it the Israelites claim on worldly power.

Last week, we read the warning about that reliance on worldly power and the idolatry of the temple in Jeremiah 7. “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh,” the Lord told Jeremiah to prophecy, “and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel.” Because they did not hearken to the Lord’s warnings, He told Jeremiah “therefore I will do to the house which is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.” Jerusalem and the temple fell to the Babylonians, severing their reliance on the temple as a safeguard for themselves rather than obeying the Word of God.

Hundreds of years later, Jerusalem has the Word of God among them in the flesh, and they’re honoring His entry — but again on their own terms. One can have empathy for an oppressed people dreaming of liberation, but Jesus had raised no army, never planned for war, and spoke to the faithful and the collaborators alike. The people of Jerusalem in this triumphal celebration put their assumptions on His shoulders without opening their hearts to His teachings.

Small wonder, then, that it only took a few days for the people of Jerusalem to abandon Jesus as fully as they did. Jesus first challenges the temple leadership and then makes clear that He did not come as a revolutionary — at least in terms of temporal power. Those who had greeted Jesus with hosannas a few days earlier demanded His death over that of a murderer.

It’s very easy to wag our fingers and cluck our tongues at the fickleness of Jerusalem, though. Perhaps it’s a little tougher to apply that lesson to our own lives. Do we embrace Christ when He is convenient, too, and when doing so serves our own purposes? Do we present Christ as our conquering hero in order to place a claim on worldly power over others in some fashion? How long do we wait to abandon Him when the resurrected Christ and His call to love fully and completely becomes inconvenient to our own ambitions, our own desires, and our own attachment to sin? A few days? Less than that?

The story of the people of Jerusalem during Holy Week is the story of humanity’s relationship with the Lord throughout salvation history. It’s easy to get on God’s bandwagon, so to speak, when He delivers us from Pharaoh, provides water in the desert, brings forth David to slay Goliath, or ends the Babylonian captivity. When the Lord shows up to deliver salvation in a form unforeseen by most and seemingly lesser than their desires, it’s a different story.

This story also reflects the personal struggle in our hearts between sin and God. We desire God, at least aspirationally, but our sinfulness tells us we are God’s equal and can demand His salvation on our own terms. The people of Jerusalem thought that in Jeremiah’s time and in Jesus’ time as well, and wound up with total destruction instead. So too with us when we follow the original sin of Adam and Eve and assume our own divinity rather than obey the Lord who made us.

Jesus offered His own life as a model for us to turn away from sin, Paul writes to the Philippians in our second reading today. Jesus did not come in His divine form to overawe humanity, but “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus came in complete obedience to the Father, even knowing what that would mean, fully embracing God’s will in order to achieve His mission to save the rest of us. And we find out for ourselves what that obedience cost Jesus in our traditional Gospel readings today — what He sacrificed to help us avoid our own inclination to total destruction through disobedience. It’s a reversal of Adam and Eve’s original sin, the drawing out of the last poison from which death sprang in the first place.

This is the challenge to us on Palm Sunday. We process into Mass waving palms as the people of Jerusalem did two thousand years ago. Will we stand with Christ when His call demands sacrifice and challenges? Or are we looking for an easier bandwagon on which to jump?

The front-page image is a detail of a mosaic from the Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily (12th century). 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.