Today’s procession and readings bring us to the beginning of the week we call holy, for Christians the holiest one of the year. We call it both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. Actually, despite what we read in John’s Gospel, at that time palm trees apparently didn’t grow around Jerusalem, so unless pilgrims brought up
bundles of palm branches from Jericho, the people were probably waving olive branches and other plant life. Mark and Matthew just say “branches,” and Luke doesn’t mention it at all. Nor does he report any “hosannas.” Traditions differ. But it’s not what we wave or shout that’s important. What is important is how we regard Jesus as he faces his Passion, the suffering he was to undergo because of his fidelity to his mission, soon understood as nothing less than the redemption of the world.
But unless we understand why Jesus chose to suffer and die to accomplish that mission, we are left wondering, like the people around the cross, why it had to come to that, why God let it happen. Why for that matter, any of us have to suffer…
We should remember this in the days to come, however: how Jesus suffered is less important than why he did. The gospels actually provide very little detail about the scourging or the crucifixion. John’s gospel alone mentions nails, and that only on the night after Jesus’ resurrection. It is sufficient that it happened, that Jesus died in a painful, shameful way, rejected and despised by the leaders of his people.
The readings today tell us that he did so willingly, obediently, and redemptively, and for that reason, as the reading from the Letter to the Philippians proclaims, God exalted him so highly that his name itself is the most revered word in any language. Or should be. How strange that Christians themselves have turned it into an expletive.
We might think about that as we hold the palm fronds that the florist provided for us. Like the ashes we daub on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent, they are just small signs, symbols of something much deeper, much more far-reaching, but something we may not think much about. As we listen to the story of the trial and execution of Jesus, we should remember this: Jesus died for our salvation, to make us safe, to make sure that our entry into the kingdom of God is secure.
If we leave just wallowing in guilt because we think that somehow our sins put Jesus on that cross, we will have missed the most important thing of all: by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set us free from sin, reconciling us by the blood of his cross to God and to one another, overcoming forever the power of sin. Nothing anyone did to him could deflect him from that goal. That is why now, today, this minute, Jesus is the savior of the world. Our savior. Welcome him.