Sunday of the Passion 2021; Mark 11:1-11
What is happening on Palm Sunday? Is it a parade, a protest march, or a funeral procession?
We all love a parade. And that’s about as far Palm Sunday goes for most people. The service begins with the Triumphal Entry and the procession of the palms. Then the liturgy pivots to the Prayer of the Day and the reading of the Passion Gospel. The corner is turned into Holy Week, and the momentary triumph is laid aside.
Except that for many worshippers, the triumph is not laid aside. Instead, we prefer to keep celebrating straight into Easter Sunday. Lots of folks move from “Hosanna” to “Alleluia” with no dark and dismal detours into the depths of the grave. Many of our members ignore Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services (especially when Holy Week coincides with “March Madness” as it does this year).
The result of this practice is that Easter becomes an anti-climax following the Palm Sunday parade. After all, what’s the big deal on Easter if we never really have to confront the betrayal and burial, the darkness and death of Jesus’ Passion?
Palm Sunday is a parade. But it’s much more. If you don’t want politics from the pulpit, then skip Holy Week altogether. Perhaps that is why some people do just that. The Triumphal Procession is a political demonstration. It’s a protest march.
Jesus takes the role of the Coming Messiah. As he rides a donkey, he brings to mind several Messianic predictions, and especially the words in Zechariah 9:9. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!” the prophet proclaims. “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (NRSV).
The details matter here. Normal pilgrims would come to the Passover festival on foot. When Jesus mounts the donkey for his descent from the Mount of Olives, this signals something big. He’s riding like a victorious king. This particular donkey has never been ridden and is set aside for a sacred purpose.
The pilgrims “prepare the royal highway” by covering it with garments and by waving branches. This is the first-century version of the “red carpet treatment,” as Malina and Rohrbaugh note. The palm branches may have been carried by the marchers from Jericho, eighteen miles distant. Jericho was labelled several times in the Hebrew scriptures and Josephus as the “city of palms” (see IDB 3:646).
In Psalm 92, the palm is a symbol of righteousness. In that psalm, the righteous are “planted in the house of the Lord” and “they flourish in the courts of our God” (verses 12-13). At the end of the protest march, Jesus enters the Temple for a look-see. The next day Jesus will come back to the Temple and seek to reassert the righteousness of that space in an act of civil disobedience and prophetic performance art.
In Isaiah 9 and 19, palm branches are symbols for the corrupt and ineffective rulers of Israel. These rulers shall be cut down without remainder. It may be, therefore, that the palm branches function much more as placards of protest than as royal fans for the coming king.
The waving placards are accompanied by revolutionary slogans. Mark records verses from Psalm 118 in particular, a psalm from the “Hallel” section of the psalter that will be quoted at length during the Passover observance. Psalm 118 is a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from battle. Those who have been rescued from their enemies are, in the psalm, making their way to the Temple to offer their sacrifices of thanksgiving.
There was precedent for all this demonstrating. “Two hundred years before,” notes N. T. Wright, “Judas Maccabaeus defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, entered Jerusalem and cleansed and rebuilt the Temple – and the people waved ivy and palm branches as they sang hymns of praise. Judas started a royal dynasty that lasted a hundred years” (Location 2649). The meaning of the actions during the Palm Sunday protest would have left no doubt as to the significance of the day.
At least some of the protestors would have been prepared for a violent response on the part of the Jerusalem authorities and the Roman garrison. Passover was always a volatile and even explosive time, with its emphasis on liberation from bondage. Messianic demonstrations and protests could have resulted in aggressive and deadly responses, much like those that protestors experienced at the Edmund Pettis Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in 1963.
This was a protest march. In combination with the Temple Incident and the public demonstrations against and debates with the Temple authorities, Jesus offered more than enough provocation to lead us into the Passion week texts in Mark 15.
On Palm Sunday, we have a parade. We have a protest. And finally, it was a funeral procession.
In just a few days, an unnamed woman will come to the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. She will anoint Jesus’ head with expensive perfume. Some will condemn her extravagance. Jesus commends her as performing a good work for him. “She has done what she could,” Jesus notes, “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (Mark 14:8, NRSV).
Two days later Jesus hands his body and blood to the disciples so they can remember him. He is handed over to the authorities to answer for his assaults on the status quo. He is betrayed and denied, tried and tortured, dead and buried. This is not what happens to event planners. This is what happens to revolutionaries. He had seen it coming. His body was prepared. Palm Sunday was as much of a funeral as he would get.
But who’s funeral is it, really? The powers that be are preparing to put Jesus down. But we know that in fact it is those powers whose funeral is being planned. In Colossians 2:15 we read that on the cross Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” The funeral was for the powers, not for the powerless.
Is it a parade, or a protest, or a funeral procession? Yes.
We readers of Mark’s gospel know there’s more to the story. The parade celebrates Jesus’ enthronement as Son of the Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. The protest march declares that the powers sin, death, and the devil do not have the final word in this world. And the funeral procession will have the strangest ending of all. The funeral procession ends with the words, “He has been raised; he is not here!”
The call in Mark’s gospel is always to follow where Jesus leads. How do we live the parade, the protest, and the procession?
In the midst of a world under the shadow of death, we celebrate life as God gives it. There’s nothing bad about doing the Palm Sunday parade up big. Just remember that there is no straight line from Palm Sunday to Easter. The parade passes through the cross, through death, through the very gates of hell, and marches out the other side.
I quote Tim Geddert here. “I think we should keep on calling this the Triumphal Entry because we know about Jesus’ Triumphal Exit, right out of the tomb,” he writes, “and then his even greater Triumphal Re-Entry into our world as the one who conquers violence and death, that greater Triumphal Entry that we will be celebrating on Easter Sunday and then again on Pentecost. And so we can celebrate already. We celebrate not with the crowds who did not get it, but with Jesus who did.”
The parade leads to the protest. They cannot be separated or placed in competition. In the midst of a world in bondage to the powers of division, domination, and destruction, we protest the injustice and embody Resurrection hope for all. That protest might lead us to many more Bloody Sundays. It will certainly get us into all sorts of Good Trouble if we follow the path. Anyone who follows Jesus understands that disrupting power through public protest is a good and holy thing to do.
So, the funeral procession passes through our lives as well. In the midst of a world that is only sure of death and taxes, we announce the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. God is loose in the world, and nothing can remain the same.
In Colossians 2:13-14 we read, “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” That’s the real funeral in our lives.
Is it a parade, a protest, or a funeral procession? Yes, it is. Let us live this way today.
References and Resources
Craddock Fred. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2003-04/protest-march.
Geddert, Tim. https://christianleadermag.com/parade-or-protest-march/.