Palm to Palm, part 1

Reflections Upon Palm Sunday

The Palm Sunday story of entrance into Jerusalem is mentioned in all four gospels. Here's the version from Luke 19: 28-40
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (NRSV)
Today is Palm Sunday. What is that to us? What are we – we 21st century Unitarian Universalists who may or may not identify as Christian – to make of Palm Sunday?

Not a lot, usually. In past years, we have merely acknowledged that it was Palm Sunday, but said nothing more about it. We have not looked into what significance the story of which today is, by convention, the anniversary, might have for our own spiritual lives.

Scholars are divided on whether Jesus of Nazareth died in the year 30 or the year 33. We know essentially nothing of what he taught or did other than what was recorded in Gospel accounts the earliest of which were written over a generation after he died, and the Gospel of John not until 80 or 90 years after he died. In those gospels there’s a story about a prophet, on the Sunday before spring’s first full moon, entering a capital city in apparent triumph.

Maybe Jesus knew the danger. We know that after this entrance, as the story unfolds, things will quickly go badly for him. He’ll be arrested on Thursday, and by Friday evening he will be dead, killed in a gruesome and agonizing execution designed not merely to kill a person but to humiliate anyone associated with that person.

But at the time of his entrance, he seemed to be well received. The people welcome him enthusiastically. Jerusalem was swelled with pilgrims, in town for the Passover festival. The gospel of John reports,
“the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel!'” (John 12:12-13, NRSV)
Only John, of the four gospels, actually mentions Palm trees in this connection. In many Christian churches today, palm fronds, or other leafy branches will be passed out to worshipers. There may be a procession in which palm fronds are carried. The palm fronds, or other tree branches, are blessed and then taken home and kept in the icon corner or next to a a cross or crucifix until the following Mardi Gras – Shrove Tuesday – when the branches are brought back to church where they are ritually burned for ashes used in Ash Wednesday rituals.

But what of the story at the base of all this? For one thing, what do we make of the monarchical references – the proclamation of being a king, the language of superiority, and ruling over -- the apparent privilege of being able to take some one else’s colt (or a donkey, depending on the gospel), without payment or compensation, but simply because “the Lord needs it.”

In the New Testament, Jesus is called, by gentiles, King of the Jews. He’s called that by the Magi who visit the nativity scene, and called that again at the end of his life – by Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate. By his Jewish followers, he’s called Christ, which means messiah, which means anointed one, where anointing with oil is the ritual of coronating: a king. For us WEIRD folk – meaning those of us in Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democracies -- the idea of a King hardly seems progressive.

But there’s a different way to see this entrance. Some commentators see Jesus’ mode of entry as a subversion – not an appropriation or imitation of a royal procession, but a parody of royalty. Robert Brawley, for instance, writes that:
“Riding a donkey over his disciples clothes, Jesus parodies royal parades. . . . [He] caricatures military acclamations.” (Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament)
After all, consider what else the Gospel writers tell us about this prophet, Jesus. Jesus’ ministry has emphasized good news for the poor and oppressed.

This is the prophet who preached:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God....But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:20,24)
This is the prophet who emphatically teaches that the kindom of God opens for those who give food to the hungry, who give something to drink to the thirsty, who welcome the stranger, who give clothing to the naked, who take care of the sick, who visit the imprisoned. (Matt 25:35-36). I don’t read him as saying there’s a heavenly reward later – bye and bye in the sky when you die, if you spend your days now “being good.” I read him as saying that at the very moment you reach out in kindness to meet another’s need, that IS the kindom of God. The very act of feeding the hungry IS stepping into the kindom of God. The moment you give drink to the thirsty, you are, in that moment, in the kindom of God. In welcoming the stranger, you are, right then, also welcomed into the kindom of God. Clothing the naked doesn’t earn you a ticket in – it IS being in. Caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned doesn’t get you some reward extrinsically – it IS it’s own reward intrinsically. The kindom of God IS people helping each other. Being of service to others IS the treasure in heaven.

This is the prophet who tells his followers,
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40)
This is the prophet who teaches,
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. . . . Truly I tell you, . . . it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kindom of God.” (Matt 19: 21-24)
Given what Jesus’ life and teachings have been all about – at least, according to the Gospel writers – his entry into Jerusalem cannot be a claiming of Kingly prerogative. That’s not what this guy is about. That grandiose entrance can only be a subversion – an undermining of the very idea of Kingly prerogatives. As spiritual activist Casey Overton delightfully puts it, Jesus is trolling the class power structure by riding into town in mock triumph. Casey is drawing on the online usage of “troll,” meaning to post “inflammatory, inappropriate, controversial, or polarizing messages online for the purpose of cultivating animosity, upsetting others, or provoking a response.” Jesus, in other words, is being deliberately provocative.

That’s why the people are cheering, Casey suggests. Jesus’ inversion of norms is wildly entertaining – in a way not completely unlike the way, today, a drag queen’s performance inverts and subverts norms in a captivating and entertaining way. Fenton Bailey, co-executive producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race, says:
“To be a drag queen is to fly your freak flag, to live your life out loud, to not let other people dictate normal or to not edit yourself so that you fit in with other people.”
The drag queen assumes an exalted, larger-than-life pose, ostentatiously parades with dazzling plumage and fanfare to the uproarious encouragement of the audience.

The drag queen’s reign lasts a few minutes, or maybe an hour, and then she returns to being “a regular dude.” Ordinary. As vulnerable as “those who cheered so loudly for her.” Perhaps more vulnerable -- because in our cisheteronormative society his transgressive alter ego makes him hated, feared, marked, targeted.

Jesus, too, in a different way, as he parades into Jerusalem, with a crowd shouting encouragement, is putting on a transgressive alter ego that subverts the very thing that it presents. Casey Overton writes:
“In the same way that transness in all its forms prefigures a world where gender is mutable, Jesus’ trolling transgression of class norms prefigures a classless world for and by the people.”
The message for today? Today, as in Jesus’ time, we are a long way from justice, equality, and peace. Getting there will take a revolution. But this cannot be joyless work. Emma Goldman did not exactly say what has been oft attributed to her, but it does summarize a point she did make: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”

We have a revolution to foment. We are called to overturn the structures that generate inequality, injustice, and violence. But let us not forget joy. Let us not neglect to have fun.

Sometimes the revolution IS a party. The party is the revolution and the liberation. Raucous drag performances are one way that partying, revolution, and liberation come together. Jesus also brings noisy celebration together with revolution and liberation.

That’s the way to see the message of the Palm Sunday story.

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