Every year, in some way most Christians reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday and, as it is sometimes called, Passion Sunday because we read one of the synoptic gospel accounts of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ earthly life. This year, those who use the
Common Lectionary are reading Matthew’s version, the longest of the three. Ordinarily churches reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by a sung procession, carrying palm leaves or other small branches and leafy twigs. This year the ceremonies will be very different – muted and most likely solitary, save for the “digital community” able to witness some of the ceremonies on television or live-streamed to their various devices.
Much of the world is now reeling in the wake of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The rate of infection is falling in some areas, increasing (along with the death rate) in others. The end is not yet in sight, despite hopeful predictions by those desperate to get the national and international economies “going” again. I suspect that most people are simply worried about their survival and that of their families and friends as well as the general population – perhaps especially the first-responders and health professionals putting their own lives on the line to save others. And that may be the greatest gift of all in this time of worry and death [John 15:13].
Understandably, the events of that day in Palestine just short of 2,000 years ago probably seem to many people to be both remote and irrelevant. But I suspect that long after the present crisis has passed into history, Palm Sunday will remain pertinent and hope-filled. It is still worth noting that in the gospels, Jesus is said to have wept only twice – once as he neared the tomb of his friend Lazarus, who had recently died, and in Luke’s gospel, today, as he first glimpsed Jerusalem on what was to be his last pilgrimage there. Both moments point ahead to his torture and death, which he had long since foretold would take place in the Holy City. Jesus’ tears are not for himself, but for those who mourn and seek comfort [John 11:35], and for those who choose to ignore or resist what is likely their final chance for deliverance [Luke 19:41]. On his way to execution in a very different kind of procession, Jesus will caution the mothers and wives who line the route, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’” [Luke 23:28].
But that is a thought for a day yet to come. Here, we are invited to exult for a moment in the entrance into Jerusalem of the Prince of Peace seated on a donkey, a beast of burden, an animal of peace not a war horse. And joining the throngs entering the Holy City for the great Passover with their celebratory branches and bright cloaks, Jesus went his way to death and resurrection. And the crowds shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” – ‘hoshiya na,’ which originally meant “Save us!” [Psalm 118:25]. Here it has been transformed to mean “The Son of David is our salvation!” [See this excellent comment by John Piper, to whom I am indebted: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/hosanna]
So as we begin the final week of Lent, this Holy Week, in the Year of COVID-19, we pray for those who have died on this day, meditating on our own part in the story of salvation and looking ahead to the bright dawn of Easter.