The Triumphal Entry seems so out of character for Jesus that I find myself struggling to understand its place in the Gospel. We’ve traversed quite a bit of the book of Mark this year, and at every turn Jesus seems to be shushing people, warning them not to spread the news that he is Messiah. “See that you tell no one” is a Markan refrain, like a praise chorus that keeps on repeating itself, only it is a resounding “shhh” rather than an alleluia. Maybe the Hosanna of today’s text is a big relief after all that silence, and that is why we get excited about Palm Sunday. Finally, we get to make some noise. Finally, the secret’s out. Jesus is King, and we can shout it. Finally.
But after the street dust has settled and the palm leaves have been trampled and the boisterous singing has softened, we are left wondering what made Jesus change his tune? I mean, the people do not burst forth in jubilation like characters in a musical, catching Jesus by surprise. The crowd didn’t stage a flash mob in defiance of Jesus’ demand for silence; Jesus himself does all the staging. If you read the story, you get the sense that Jesus encouraged the praise by setting it all up just so. He arranges for the donkey, he plans it out meticulously, he rides in, he accepts the glory. But why? What happened to keeping it quiet, staying beneath the radar, and maintaining a low profile?
Not only does Jesus suddenly seem to change his strategy, it is odder still that he chose this moment to do so. He is entering Jerusalem, which is the place of his imminent death. He is not just approaching the holy city, he is approaching his torturous demise—the stark loneliness of his trial, the forsakenness on the cross, the abandonment of his followers. On the cusp of so much pain, why celebrate?
And to make it lonelier still, the giddy people frolicking about him are none the wiser. They dance and they shout, but they think they are getting a king who will overrun their oppressor and grant them their freedom, and while Jesus indeed is King, he will not at all fit the mold they expect or desire. They do not expect him to suffer silently and die.
So why? Why does Jesus seemingly encourage all this frivolity and merriment on his account?
Scholar Margaret Farley asks the question, “is Jesus’ triumphant entry part of a journey marked by deeper and deeper letting go of all things except the will of God?”*
It was not just Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem that was significant; it was the whole journey that brought him here. Sometimes we think the only time Jesus had to wrestle with his fate was in the Garden of Gethsemane, or perhaps once early on in the wilderness those 40 days with Satan. But I suspect the surrender was daily. Jesus inched his way to Jerusalem, each step a sacrifice. He kept making the right choice time and again, but that doesn’t mean the choosing came easy. So making it to Jerusalem was triumphant, in its own way. Jesus entered Jerusalem, knowing full well what that would mean, and that obedience alone was a victory of sorts. Yes, there was much left to accomplish. Much left to face. But he’d made it this far, which seemed to indicate he could make it to the very end.
Jesus entered Jerusalem as a dusty pilgrim. It had been a long road, and though arrival meant more hardship and greater suffering, even still, his rugged faithfulness thus far was worth celebrating.
I find the image of Jesus journeying, laboring, step by step to the holy land to be a helpful one for us pilgrims. We are all on a long journey of faith, one that requires patience with the road and patience with ourselves. It becomes suitable to celebrate tiny accomplishments and miniscule blessings, because when you’re on the road with Jesus you seldom feast luxuriously, but you often find manna right when you thought you would starve. When you journey with Jesus, you make unthinkable sacrifices and you love people wastefully and you throw parties at unexpected occasions, and that’s just the way the pilgrimage of faith unfolds.
Sometimes people talk about faith like it is something that happens is your head, as if Christianity is a checklist of ideas, and you either agree or don’t agree, but your mental assent is all that matters. But of course, what Jesus actually required was to follow him, and for those first disciples, this meant putting one foot in front of the other, step by step, wherever he led, all the way to Jerusalem, Golgotha, and beyond. There were lots of tears and lots of laughter, skinned knees and soiled sandals, but at the end of it all, they wouldn’t have traded the trip for all the gold in the world.
Faith is a journey, and it helps to see that even Jesus had to travel as a pilgrim. Sometimes we forget though, because our religious experiences are often confined to sitting on a pew, and thinking in our minds about what is being said. There is very little in our practice that forces us out of seats and onto the road, very little to help get what we believe conceptually down into our bones and into our very being and moving and living.
We do have a few things around here to help. At Covenant, we have the benefit of our paths, where we can pray and walk at the same time, and that helps, at least a little, to catch our living up with our believing (and visa versa) and to connect our bodies to our spirits.
Just yesterday, a group of us gathered at the prayer path together, and laid out the Stations of the Cross. The Stations are a pilgrimage of sorts, albeit a localized and brief one, and the idea is that if you walk with Jesus to the cross via the Stations, you’ll be more inclined to walk with Jesus wherever he leads in your regular life. You enter the Passion story, and as a result, the story gets inside of you and comes to life.
The first time I ever walked the Stations of the Cross, I was walking along, praying and reflecting at each part of the Passion Narrative, and suddenly the story became real in a whole new way. I remember looking at a picture of the crown of thorns, and all the sudden I felt the reality of Jesus’ death in my gut. There was just something about moving bodily from place to place in the narrative that made the story grow bigger than something I just carry around in my head, and it became a world I could walk around in, a tangible tale with the power to change me, inside and out. In that moment, Jesus became a little more real to me. Like a bit of incarnation.
Last week I made my box for our Stations of the Cross. I chose Station 6, which the part of the story where Jesus is Scourged and Crowned with thorns. So I fashioned a mini-crown of thorns from strands of thorns I found in the grass at the park near our house. It was delicate work, twisting together thorns without drawing blood. I pricked myself, and suddenly remembered this was more than an art project. Someone somewhere that fateful day fashioned a crown made of thorns with the intention of placing it on the head of the King of Jews. And in that moment too, Jesus became a little more real to me. Like a bit of incarnation.
Sometimes it is not until we see with our very own eyes or feel it with our fingers or hear with our ears or simply get up and walk on our own two legs that a story becomes real. Fortunately, we have practices to help faith travel from our heads into our being, our moving, our living. But, we could sit on a pew Sunday after Sunday and never really get what Jesus is calling us into, never comprehend the story, never enter the story as an intentionally contributing character.
I think of those palm wavers the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, and truth be told, they had little to no idea what it really meant to hail this man as King. In a few short days they would be shell-shocked to see their future King arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. Some of the feet running to greet him would soon be running away, and some of the voices now crying, “Hosanna” would soon cry “Crucify Him.” But even those who didn’t fall away would still be dazed and disappointed, shocked and hurt. Their valiant defender won’t even fight back—he won’t raise a fist or draw a sword, and what kind of King won’t fight?
But profound disappointment is just what we’ve come to expect as the worshippers of a God who exceeds our imagination. We keep praising and singing, keep calling, Hosanna, save us! Not because this is a God who is what we think is, who fits inside our box, and who carries out our whims. We praise him because he is holy and he is good and we fully expect him to catch us by surprise again and again and again. We pray that when our understanding of who he is and why he is here gets radically shattered all over, we will find the courage to let our idolatrous perceptions fall by the wayside. We hope to let him ride into our lives as he is, that we might follow him wherever he goes.
We are a fickle band of worshippers, you and I. We sing our praises and then we cower in fear—we’re never quite sure if we love God or if we love our idea of God, somedays we are ready to follow him even if we die and somedays we are ready to crucify him. We are fickle and feeble and faltering, and that is just how God accepts us. He shows up amidst our clumsy worship and halted confessions. Our understanding will morph again and again. Each time we will be amazed, embarrassed, afraid, confused to discover that God differs from our fantasies about him, but God just smiles with each new discovery, and receives our latest expression of worship the way a parent receives a drawing from a child, and he puts it up on his refrigerator, side-by-side with the previous expression, and he is equally delighted by them both.
So may you be patient with the road and patient with yourself. May you color as vibrantly as you can, even if you can’t stay inside the lines. Amen.
* Margaret A. Farley, Feasting on the Word, Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 156.