On Palm Sunday, my church lasts longer than usual and includes a wide range of emotions. It begins with large portions of the congregation’s going outside the building with their palms. The choir joins them and, after a blessing by the priest, this assemblage enters the narthex, replicating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. We sing–loudly–“All glory, laud, and honor/ to Thee redeemer king” as the procession winds its way around the perimeter of the church and parishioners find their seats. So that’s the happy part. The rest of the 90 minutes is spent pondering the sad journey Jesus undertook during the last week of his life. What we sing is written in minor keys and what we say is painfully sad. A cantor speaks to how Jesus is reviled: dogs bark at him, people rend his garments and spit on him, he is offered vinegar that turns his stomach. The refrain that we all sing is “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Instead of a short Gospel reading followed by a homily, we hear the long story of that last week and I just weep at how alone this young man was and how betrayed he felt over and over. When he retreats into the Garden of Gathsemane, he asks the apostles he’s brought with him to keep watch in case the police try to take him. Twice he returns to the gate only to find these men sound asleep, so he asks them why they couldn’t stay awake just a little while to help him. Then he tells them he fears betrayal within their midst and Peter boasts that it would never be he, even though Jesus has warned him that he will betray him three times before the cock who proclaims a new day crows. Of course we then hear Peter sputter eagerly to three different citizens who say they’ve seen him with Jesus “Oh, no, it’s not I; I never met the man, I never was there.” When the reader tells us the rooster is crowing, I feel like I may not be able to stay in my seat; this story is just too painful. Finally, we hear about Pilate, who cannot act on what he knows is true–there is no evidence at all that Jesus is guilty of anything. This part of the gospel reminds me pointedly of all the current politicians–of all stripes, sadly–who mimic this stance, saying they know one truth but then being unwilling to act on that knowledge.
Every year at this service, I feel the same thing: We as a culture just keep doing what was done way back then in Jerusalem: we create heroes/saviors who shine for a short while before we turn against them and disavow all knowledge of them. In Jesus’ case, his community goes from throwing down carpets to line his path and waving triumphant palms before his donkey’s hooves to hammering nails into his hands and feet and leave him to die a slow and torturous death on a cross. Amazingly enough, they do this in the tiny span of only six days. So when we end this service by singing “What wondrous love is this, oh my soul, oh my soul,” I wonder indeed.