There’s often a little prayer here. I don’t have one, just a quick public service announcement: Please get vaccinated as soon as you’re able. It’s free, safe, and saves lives. If you need assistance, contact the church, or visit Fairfax County or the Virginia Department of Health websites, or that of similar agencies in your area. Otherwise, please continue to avoid crowds and unnecessary travel. If you must go out, wear a mask, perhaps even two, and maintain substantial distance from others. There is hope, but this isn’t over, not in this community, not in our world.
This is the second Lent, the second Palm Sunday, we are doing differently because it’s safer this way. And this Palm Sunday feels strange. I don’t want to do it this way. I want a palm-waving procession. I want the anthems. I want the crowd. I want to be at the end of the line of the procession singing three beats behind the choir and two keys off by the time I get to the door of the church. I want the option, at least. I want Eucharist. I want song. I just want to be “many”—on a plane, in a restaurant, at a concert—in church. I want the option, at least, to be plural, to be “many.”
If you want that, too, here’s how you can help: get vaccinated, avoid crowds, use masks and distance, and encourage others to do the same.
But I’ll tell you: Palm Sunday is—and it was—a strange Sunday to begin with, its mysteries and contradictions resolved only in God’s loving intervention, in what it means to be among “the many.”
Palm Sunday is strange, and not only because we can’t gather in the usual way.
Gathering in an unusual way, we can see the weirdness well. The Book of Common Prayer knows the day is weird because it gives today two names: “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday” (BCP p. 270). The general guidance is that the commemorations of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and of his death on the cross for our sins be separated. All the positive prayers, readings, psalms, and songs are with Palm Sunday, and everything else is somber. And you do them in different places, if you can. We can’t do that, which demonstrates the ways in which the two sides of this day—joy and sadness—were never separated; they were always together, mixed.
Palm and Passion are always paired. There is no celebration of Palm Sunday without the Lent that comes before it, the Good Friday that follows. And so it was for the crowds who met Jesus. Every expectation of a cast-out, wandering, exiled, oppressed people, every hope for a suffering, broken humanity, lead to this moment, to this Jesus riding into town.
Every Gospel writer includes the story of the triumphal entry in to Jerusalem, and everyone recalls a parade of people singing the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” John calls them the crowd, a crowd so numerous, the Pharisees say, “the whole world” seems to be following Jesus. Luke calls them the “multitude.” Matthew calls them the “crowds.” Mark simply says “the many.” Jesus states in the preceding chapter that he has come “not be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus says later his blood will be poured out for “many,” the many who now sing him into Jerusalem.
But “the many” are, well, many: disciples, new and old, bandwagon-jumpers, well-wishers, bystanders, opponents, enemies, each with their own expectations. There had to be those in the crowd who knew even then what was going to happen. Looking back, we know where this Lord leads and the darkness he will face. Palm and Passion are always paired.
And so the contradictions pile up. Mundane travel is tinged with the supernatural; the profane becomes sacred. This Palestinian Jew, who can’t find a ride, who literally can’t hail a cab, is identified as “the Lord.” The ensuing royal procession acclaims the peasant son of day laborer turned rabbi in a military parade with no chariot. A political revolution, a religious reformation, goes nowhere. We shout with the words of Psalm 118, which marks a believer’s or even a king’s entry into the holy Temple, and Jesus does go into the Temple: to poke around, check his watch, and leave. What is going on?
Palm Sunday was always strange.
But this strangeness is a result of misplaced trust, of misguided expectation, of mistaken belief in human notions of fairness and reciprocity.
We all make calculations. For instance, I have the problem of looking out for me and looking out for others. Do you keep the cash? Or give or loan the money to that person or charity? Do you take that job, that opportunity for yourself? Or help someone else?
We all make these choices, and I’ve noticed I tend to make a bet with myself. I can look out for me and for others—because I’m reasonably, if naively, sure the world operates according to general rules which makes sense, because I’m sure it’ll all work out for everyone, because they’d probably do the same for me.
Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday, is, among many things, a demonstration of why this is a bad bet.
Imagine Jesus coming down to earth and agonizing, “Oh, dear me, do I use my supernatural powers to do everything from heal, control the weather, and manipulate matter itself to overthrow the world and install myself as benevolent dictator? Or do I die an agonizing death for the sins of the whole world? Let me see: I am indeed comfortable with dying a humiliating, torturous death because I know they’d do the same for me.” Somehow, I don’t think that’s the conversation in the garden.
Jesus doesn’t take human form, enter Jerusalem, and face certain death because he’s counting on reciprocity, or because time will tell, or because everyone will eventually come around to seeing it his way, or because he sees the world as fair. Because people won’t do the same for him. Because time doesn’t do things by itself. Because the world isn’t fair. This “many” that sings him into Jerusalem is the same “many” that will falsely testify against him just a few days from now.
Palm Sunday doesn’t make any sense from the perspective of “the many,” when approached as a political or religious consumer with a set of expectations. Its mysteries, its true weirdness, comes when we see it as someone doing the right thing for no other reason than it’s right. Did you come today for a parade? Did you come today seeking justice? Did you come here for a revolution? You will be disappointed.
But if you came here to see Jesus, you’re on the right Facebook page. If you came to this moment seeking God, he indeed walked among us, for us, and does so even today, even in pandemic, especially in pandemic. If we come to this Sunday seeking the Lord, I think we might just find the other things we dearly hope for.
Jesus calls us today in Palm and Passion to love in an extraordinary way.
The day makes sense from God’s perspective as a necessary act of intervention in a world that doesn’t always reciprocate or even understand. We don’t follow Jesus based on what “the many” do. We know what we’re capable of doing. We follow Jesus because of what he did, does, and will continue to do for all of us, “the many.”
I think if we wish to gather as many, if we wish to be the body of Christ, we must be prepared to do things for the many that the many are often not willing to do for us. We all have a Jerusalem, and we must go there. We must love without expectation that love will be returned. We must care not trusting that they will care back, but trusting in God with the resolve that the prophet Isaiah knew: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.” And trusting in God, we have the strength to love in ways we are not prepared to. Paul tells the people of Philippi, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” We don’t love because we think it will be returned. We love knowing it likely won’t be. We love knowing God, however, is faithful. And in God’s faith, in unconditional love for others, “the many” may yet find the strength and courage to love as well.
If you too wish to be among the many again, get vaccinated, avoid crowds, use masks and distance, and encourage others to do the same. Not because they will, but because you know too many won’t. It’s a good thing to do.
If you wish to gather again, walk this way of Holy Week with us. Worship details are in the bulletin. As you pray, ask yourself: What does it mean to be among “the many?” When are we many? When are we one? When are we a crowd? When are we a people? When are we the world? When are we the body of Christ?
How can we be one, even when we’re apart? How can we be a people though divided? How can we be the body of Christ though broken?
And look upon that body of Christ: When do we see Jesus as something of a celebrity, an answer to our questions? When is Jesus someone who has something to ask of us?
When is Jesus just another teacher, another prophet, another philosopher, another failed revolutionary? When is Jesus just another king? And when is Jesus Lord?
And if you want to be together, really together, inoculate yourselves with the truth, vaccinate yourself with love, that truth and love might finally outrun falsehood and hate.
If you wish as I do to be among the “many” who welcome Jesus today, may we do the right things for no other reason than that they’re right—that every Holy Week might be stranger than the last—in all the new, loving, and mysterious ways God dreams for us, the many.