Passion Week begins with palms. Branches are cut from trees, hands are raised in praised, and the most important figure in history enters the greatest city in the first century for the most important week that’s ever been.
This unrecognized prince has a rightful claim to the throne of his people as the heir of their most celebrated king. And yet he rides in manifest humility, on the back of a donkey’s colt — like no other ruler in the first century, or the twenty-first century, would dare stoop to do.
And this, of course, is not the extent of his meekness and lowliness. He will stoop yet further this holy week, and then further still when he is “raised up” to the lowest of all places, to the utter shame and ignominy of a brutal public execution, even death on a cross.
The Glow of Palm Sunday
But for now, the week begins with the strange and wonderful glow of Palm Sunday. We feel the radiance of the coming king, ushered into the great city by crowds stirred for the arrival of a veritable dignitary. “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:11). In their excitement, they “spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road” (Matthew 21:8), and so give “Palm Sunday” its name.
Joy shines this Sunday — a joy, as we now know, that anticipates a supernova of gladness coming on the following Sunday. In the thrill of hope, the crowds rehearse the praises of Psalm 118, pining that perhaps this is, at long last, the great “Son of David,” the promised royal rescuer, riding into the Holy City to definitively save his people.
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Hosanna — a Hebrew declaration of adoration and delight — is the refrain for this triumphal entry.
Tinged with the Coming Pain
Still the light is tinged, even in the emotional highs of Palm Sunday. This is not yet his coronation at the right hand, seated on the throne of heaven. This is not the final triumph when heaven itself will descend and remake our fallen world — with all sorrow and pain, and every tear and enduring rebel, banished to outer darkness.
No, even in the throes of joy, the threatened authorities begin their diabolical plot. The humble king heals the blind and the lame (Matthew 21:14), and when the establishment sees “the wonderful things that he did . . . they were indignant” (Matthew 21:15). The burgeoning joy of the masses is the festering anger of the Jerusalem elite.
Joy Set Before the Man of Sorrows
Here on this Sunday we find, in microcosm, the joys and sorrows of the legendary week ahead. This initial clash with the authorities anticipates the coming conspiracy, the traitor that will emerge, the fearful disciples who will flee, and the sheer demonic wickedness that will descend upon the city and culminate in his death by sundown Friday.
And yet the joy of Palm Sunday forecasts the unrivaled euphoria to come on Easter morning.
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