Palms and Passion: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Palm/Passion Sunday
Palm/Passion Sunday (Year C): Luke 19:28-40 and Luke 22:14-23:56
1) Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ jubilant entry into Jerusalem, essentially a piece of street theater dramatizing Zechariah’s ancient prophecy: the long-awaited divine monarch arrives on a humble donkey, announcing “peace to the nations” (Zech 9:9-10). Shout hosanna! The new era, the Great Jubilee, has begun!
2) Passion Sunday, on the other hand, tells the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, anticipating that at least some won’t be able to attend Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday services later in the week - and so, rather than skip directly from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday (“Hosanna!” to “Alleluia!”), some churches devote this Sunday to reflecting on Jesus’ journey to the cross.
3) Passion Sunday often omits (or only briefly mentions) the story of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, in part because of the stark difference in mood between the jubilant parade and the somber via dolorosa. But this contrastive tension is at the heart of the overall narrative: the one betrayed and deserted in the passion is none other than the one hailed as the long-awaited divine monarch - as the Palm Sunday account, with its exuberant echoes of Zechariah, makes vividly clear. So far from emotional whiplash, then, the descent from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” is essential to the Gospel. Indeed, as Luke tells it, Jesus moves immediately from the joy of the procession to the sorrow of weeping over Jerusalem and the anger of cleansing the temple (Luke 19:41-47).
4) Whatever approach is taken, the main thing is to remember that Holy Week is a kind of choreography or symphony, with distinct movements unfolding over time: from “Hosanna in the highest!” to “Is it I?” to “Do this in remembrance of me” to “Remove this cup from me” to “I do not know him” to “Crucify him!” to “Father, forgive them” to “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” One way or another, these movements require time and space to be felt and understood, and so letting the symphony play out over the course of a week is ideal. One approach is to hold services during the week for those who can attend; and at the same time, to provide a home-based practice for prayer and reflection.
5) Imagine, for example, a home-based Tenebrae Wreath (“tenebrae” means “shadows”), a sort of Advent Wreath in reverse: four candles in a circle with a Paschal candle in the middle, extinguished one by one. Sunday night: beginning with only the Paschal candle lit, read Luke’s story of Palm Sunday, and then light all four candles in joy, hope, and thanksgiving. Thursday night: read Luke’s story of the Last Supper, and extinguish one candle; then read Luke’s story of Gethsemane, and extinguish a second. Friday night: read Luke’s story of Peter’s denials and desertion, and extinguish a third candle; then read Luke’s story of Jesus’ suffering, and extinguish the fourth; and then finally, read Luke’s story of Jesus’ death, and extinguish the Paschal candle. Saturday, the wreath remains unlit and bare, perhaps shrouded with cloth. And Sunday morning, the shroud is gone and all candles are lit, with a few more candles added - along with some flowers and Easter sweets! Read Luke’s story of the empty tomb, and sing your favorite Easter hymn (or two).
1) Jesus’ arrival from the Mount of Olives isn’t incidental: this route is also an enactment of Zechariah’s prophecy, since God was expected to arrive via the Mount of Olives on the “day of the LORD” and become monarch “over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:4-9). The point is that Luke goes out of his way to underscore that Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem bears all the marks of Zechariah’s ancient promise: the new era has dawned!
2) In contrast to Matthew, Mark, and John, Luke doesn’t mention palms, but the crowds “spreading their cloaks on the road” has a similar upshot: they recognize Jesus as royalty (compare 2 Kings 9:13).
3) Why do the city’s crowds turn on Jesus so soon thereafter? For those who understood the “day of the LORD” as a time of military conquest and fantastic prosperity, it wouldn’t take long to decide that the rabbi from Nazareth is a disappointing imposter (particularly after he’s seized and imprisoned by the Romans). But Jesus has an even deeper, more enduring form of liberation in mind…
4) Reading Luke’s passion narrative from ten thousand feet, at least three things stand out. First, Jesus’ status as the long-awaited divine monarch whose arrival will usher in a new era, a New Exodus, a Great Jubilee - but who initially is met with rejection by Jerusalem, just as many prophets before him were rejected (Luke 13:34). Second, Jesus responds to this violence with nonviolent, forgiving grace, even and especially for Jerusalem. And third, as we explored a few weeks ago, for Luke, Jesus’ work culminates not with his death but with his resurrection (“on the third day I finish my work,” Luke 13:32). While the cross is essential to this choreography, the resurrection is the focal point of Jesus’ saving mission: the Way of Life will vanquish the powers of death, and that victory fully emerges not when Jesus breathes his last, but when he leaves the “linen cloths” of death behind (Luke 24:12).
1) Palms or Passion - or both? While any of these option can work, the more the Gospel’s symphonic character is honored, the better: the story has movements, each with its own emotional depth, and often in contrastive tension with what precedes or follows. Traditionally, the “passion narrative” begins with the solemnity of the Last Supper - but beginning instead with the joyful entry into Jerusalem makes theological sense, since Zechariah’s vision clarifies the stakes (Behold, the long-awaited One! The day of the LORD, the Great Jubilee, has begun!). And it’s this soaring vision, too, that both underscores the story’s tragic character and provides a dose of celebrative hope before we descend into the shadows.
2) Speaking of shadows: entering Holy Week raises the question of how we should understand the cross. As a starting point, it’s worth remembering that the Christian church has never called an official council to settle this question, as it has with regard to other key doctrinal matters (say, the precise nature of the Incarnation). On the contrary, our ancestors deemed it wise to keep the mystery of the cross open to various interpretations, no single one of which has the corner on the truth. Over the centuries, several understandings of the cross have emerged and gathered support, and churches today do well to lift them up in all their insight and diversity - the better to keep the cross accessible from multiple directions.
3) For some, the cross-and-empty-tomb represents God’s victory over the powers of death. For others, Jesus’ passion represents God “paying the price” for sin once and for all, liberating humanity from guilt and shame. Others argue that Jesus’ suffering testifies to God’s solidarity with all who suffer today, offering divine companionship and hope in the midst of anguish. Still others emphasize how the story functions as an illuminating critique of human hatred, violence, and scapegoating, or as a moving portrait of God’s merciful love, even to the point of death. Others contend that the heart of the story is God’s creative, subversive redemption, transforming what is arguably the worst thing in the world (the Roman cross) into the best (the Tree of Life), thereby proclaiming God’s intention to redeem the whole creation in the end. And others, of course, combine two or more of these perspectives. The overarching point here is that the divine mystery of the cross is a kind of cathedral, an architecture with many entrances - and to insist on one avenue alone is to deny the hospitality and richness of God’s redemptive work.