Palm Sunday Reflection
I won’t tell you my name - you wouldn’t recognise it if I did. There were so many of us with Jesus and his disciples, but only a few are remembered. I preferred to be in the background, to serve, to watch, to learn what I could. Perhaps it wasn’t the place of a woman, following Jesus in that way, but he never seemed to care about keeping women in their place, and his disciples followed his lead. So I watched and listened and learned what I could from the margins of the group.
I remember that last journey to Jerusalem. We were on our way to celebrate the festival of Passover in the city. This sacred feast is a special part of the yearly pattern of our festivals, and many of us had made this journey before, at least once in our lives. Somehow this time it seemed different, more special, full of a meaning and significance more real and immediate than I had ever noticed before. It was exciting to be making that journey again now, in company with the Messiah. At the time, I thought that was where the special significance came from, and we were so joyful, such a celebration.
When we got near to Bethany, Jesus stopped the procession at the Mount of Olives and sent two of the disciples to fetch an animal for him to ride. It was so like Jesus to send two, just like when he sent them out to preach in pairs. It seemed like he always did that, even for the simplest of tasks. Some of the men didn’t seem to like always having another with them, one or two even grumbled that Jesus didn’t trust them (always out of his hearing of course), but I don’t think it had to do with trust. After all, the scriptures say that two can defend themselves better than one and one man sharpens another as iron sharpens iron. Two for protection, two for clear heads, two for support, two to get the job done. It made sense to me, but I never contradicted the grumblers. They didn’t ask for my opinion.
On that day, Jesus gave these two strict instructions about where they would find the animal and what to say if they were challenged about taking it. I remember wondering if he had made arrangements beforehand with Eleazar or one of his other local friends for the loan of the animal. Jesus was well known in that area, no one soon forgets a man walking out of a tomb who has been dead and buried for three days! Whatever the arrangements, they were back in good time with the animal. I was surprised to see how young it was, little more than a foal or colt. It was too young to be trained and looked a bit small to carry a full grown man, but the disciples padded the animal’s back with their cloaks and it allowed Jesus to ride nonetheless.
So we began to move again towards the city. As we went along, more people removed their cloaks and laid them out on the ground in front of Jesus. Suddenly it looked like some parody of a royal procession with dusty cloaks in a patchwork on the ground instead of a beautiful cloth and the ‘king’ riding an unbroken colt instead of a strong warhorse. But that was ever the way with Jesus, no matter how much his disciples and others around him wanted to praise him, protect him or set him apart, he was always choosing a simpler, humbler way. He welcomed children, spoke to (and allowed himself to be touched by) women, ate with the tax collectors, healed on the Sabbath. Well, let’s just say he never seemed concerned about appearances, or about securing power and authority for himself. So it seemed fitting that he had chosen this young, untrained animal and placed himself among us, people of little importance. He didn’t object to the laying down of cloaks on the road, perhaps he had his reasons. Looking back, I can’t help thinking we got a bit carried away, but going to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem with the Messiah himself, well, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
That final part of the journey, down the Mount of Olives and across the narrow and deep Kidron valley to Jerusalem, was filled with songs of praise from the pilgrims on the way to celebrate Passover. It was traditional to shout and sing on the way to the city, a song of victory, a hymn of praise to the God who defeats his foes and establishes his kingdom. As the crowd swelled around Jesus, journeying down from the Mount of Olives, our joy overflowed. There was shouting and singing, snatches of familiar Psalms being taken up by one group, then another. Others were calling out, telling stories of the miracles they had seen while following Jesus.
The noise and music grew. More and more voices were calling out together: Praise! Blessing! Peace! Glory! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Oh, I can’t describe the atmosphere. It was inspired, electric, the valley seemed to echo with the sound of praising, singing voices.
But of course Jesus and his disciples weren't the only ones going to Jerusalem that day. There were others on the road. Some of them got caught up in the stories and shouts and songs of praise, but some Pharisees were there too. They always seemed to turn up wherever Jesus was, casting a shadow with their dour faces and their ominous warnings.
I had stayed as close behind Jesus as I could, so I overheard when they challenged him. They demanded he tell the people to stop, but Jesus didn’t obey them. I used to wonder where he found the courage to challenge the religious and temple authorities so often. After all, he was a carpenter, with no more than a basic education. By rights he should have been rushing to do what the Pharisees said, but he never did so. He didn’t react to them with anger or violence or seem to resent their authority. Indeed, he treated them as if they had no authority. So instead of telling the people to stop, or stopping himself to engage the Pharisees in a debate about what was happening, Jesus continued calmly on his way, only telling them that if the people were made to be silent then rocks would cry out in their place. The procession wound on through the valley, and I found myself half hoping Jesus would quiet the crowd. Imagine hearing rocks crying out in praise! I found I couldn’t imagine it and turned to join back in with the crowd.
But something had changed in that moment with the Pharisees. I had stood still for a few moments pondering the exchange between them and Jesus. As I turned back to rejoin the procession, my eyes went straight to Jesus, and it seemed like I saw him clearly for the first time that day. For some reason he had turned to glance behind, and for a moment he caught my eye as I stood, still and silent, in the midst of the dancing and singing throng. In that moment I realised something was terribly wrong. The look in his eyes wrung my heart to the core. It seemed that, with that last look back, he was setting himself to a purpose. Suddenly I was afraid something terrible was going to happen.
I tried to catch up to him, to catch another glimpse of his face, but he was set on his purpose now. He did not look back again. Eventually we reached the city gates and the journey of joy and praise was over, absorbed into the milling throngs within the city. I hurried through the crowds, trying to keep close the disciples, but I couldn’t shake that feeling of foreboding.
That was the last time I caught Jesus’ eye before he died. That last week was so busy, so frenetic, but one by one the others caught the mood. We knew he was heading down a path towards destruction. I remember wondering why, he was doing it, wishing I could speak to him, talk him out of it, but I knew it was impossible. I had seen the look in his eyes.
When I look back to that time, it always seems so odd to me that a week of such tragedy, pain and loss should have begun with such joyful praise and celebration. Maybe we needed it. Maybe it was a gift to help us through the coming trials, a memory to hold onto of Jesus, riding in humility as a king, receiving loving praise from the adoring crowds around him.
But even though I know the final ending to the story isn’t a bad one, that look in his eyes still haunts my memory, the look of a man not yet condemned, but nonetheless riding willingly to his own execution.