Masses of people are moving along towards the temple – and Jesus, sitting on a donkey, is right in the middle of them. He is riding on the foal of a donkey, and according to the prophet Zechariah this is how the redeemer king would come. The cutting and spreading of branches made a connection between the entry of Jesus and that of Simon Maccabaeus, who led a successful revolt to free Jerusalem and make the temple a holy place again. That gives Palm Sunday its name. It also points to freedom and redemption after the hard and painful time of Passiontide is finished.
When the people welcome Jesus they use the word “Hosanna”. This was not only a blessing, but also a cry for help. You may wonder how all this can be connected with our life today. To explain and illustrate this question I would like to come back to the initial idea of a carnival.
In most areas in Germany, where I come from, during the last days before Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday there are carnival processions and celebrations daily. Everyone and everything is taken out of the normal order of things and put to the purpose of the party. Huge floats with radical themes and headlines ridicule and criticise things that are oppressive and painful in life and in politics. Of course music, fun, food and drink, like at Notting Hill, play their part too. The combination of all these very different elements turns Carnival in Germany into a time of liberation. People can vent their frustrations, and dance, sing and shout away their tensions. After that they can again deal appropriately with feelings and situations which may otherwise devastate them.
As far as I can remember many of the slogans of the floats were a variation of the cry in Jesus’ time: Get us out of this! Help us! We want to be free!
Imagine yourself as part of the crowd at Jesus’ time: where are you in this carnival story? Are you the one at the sidelines? Do you climb a tree, like Nicodemus, to see Jesus? Are you walking next to or behind the donkey?
The longing to be free from the pain and difficulties of living is probably as old as humanity itself. Unfortunately learning to deal with these things is something that needs to be learned. Try and remember how you have learned what is necessary in life. There was usually someone to show you how to do it.
We love the clowns in the circus because they are just like us: they make mistakes; they are clumsy, and have angry, happy, and sad feelings – and they are permitted to act it all out. In a way watching clowns is like looking into a mirror and watching ourselves. This is exactly what Jesus is doing. He lives his life with honesty, courage and love, even until the time when he knows his life may be taken from him. He shows us how to accept God’s love, but also how to deal with joy, pain, sadness, and being hated and rejected – and he shows us how to die with strength and dignity.
On the day we now call Palm Sunday the Passion begins, and Jesus embarks on his final journey from life into death. There were many moments before when he has talked about this destiny to his disciples. Jesus said again and again that it was necessary for him to die. He even says that only if he dies new life can grow and the Holy Spirit can come. Of course the disciples did not understand this. Only long after the event can we understand that this is God’s way of showing us how to live fully and with integrity from start to finish.
So if God’s invitation is to follow Jesus, what does that mean for us in the twenty first century? Do we need to undergo torture equivalent to the one Jesus had to endure? The not-so-good news is that we still need to keep alert against our personal sins, as well as cultivate awareness of corporately missing the mark as a society. These things do not disappear just because we are baptised, but we have to take action to change the interior and exterior world. The good news is that, as St Paul has found long ago, Jesus has already done the lion’s share of the work. In baptism we have already died with Christ and this fact makes us free to live complete and authentic lives close to God.
Knowing that the walk is not easy, will you come along anyway?