Palms and Crosses: A Reflection for Palm Sunday 2023

One of the fascinating things about how the first Christians understood what had happened in the world in and through Jesus is just how topsy-turvy, unexpected, and ironic it all was. As they read their Scriptures, they suddenly saw Jesus everywhere in them, even if this caused them to read those Scriptures from a different perspective. My favorite example of this is how the name Immanuel, ‘God is with us’ in Isaiah 8 transformed from an exclusive ‘God is with us (but not you), so submit yourselves to us’ to an inclusive ‘God is with (all of) us, so submit yourselves to God.’ The same pattern of interpretation and re-interpretation happens throughout the New Testament as the Jesus experience caused those first Christians to reimagine everything they thought they knew about the Bible and the God the Bible revealed. All this comes to mind today, because the Palm Sunday narrative is filled with irony, both internal and external. Externally, we know that the crowds that welcome Jesus into Jerusalem as a king are fickle and in just a few days will be shouting for his execution. We also know that they are both right and wrong in holding him up as a king, for he is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. But there’s also internal irony, irony that’s inherent in the story, such as the crowds treating an itinerant rabbi like an imperial official, or Jesus choosing to ride into the city on a donkey foal. But today I’d like to look not at the story itself, but at the Psalm appointed for today, Psalm 118, which has long been associated with both Palm Sunday and Easter.

Psalm 118 is a hymn of praise that starts with a collective call to thanksgiving:

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!
Let Israel say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
Let the house of Aaron say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
Let those who fear the LORD say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
(Psalm 118.1-4)

The official reading called for today skips from this introduction down to verse 19, but the middle parts are worth looking at in brief. Verses 5-9 recount God’s faithfulness in a time of crisis and remind the faithful not to put their hope in mere mortals, but in God alone. Verses 10-18 provide a military context for the prayer: they found themselves surrounded and the enemy “blazed like a fire of thorns,” pressing hard against their flanks such that were it not for God’s help, they would surely have failed to repel the attack. And so they give thanks to God for this unlikely victory. Then, we come to the part of the Psalm appointed for today. The victorious army returns to Jerusalem in a procession, shouting:

Open for me the gates of righteousness;
I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord.
“This is the gate of the Lord; he who is righteous may enter.”
I will give thanks to you,
for you answered me and have become my salvation.
The same stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.
On this day the Lord has acted;
we will rejoice and be glad in it.
Hosannah, Lord, hosannah!
Lord, send us now success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;
we bless you from the house of the Lord.
God is the Lord;
he has shined upon us;
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.
“You are my God, and I will thank you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever.

In the Psalm the procession comes towards the city, proclaiming victory and telling the city it’s safe to open the gates. The enemy may have been stronger in force and numbers, but God has saved the day. And so they all shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” These are of course the words with which the crowds in Jerusalem greet Jesus. According to the Gospels, the crowds see a parallel between welcoming Jesus and welcoming home a victorious army. And this is where the irony comes in. For there are indeed parallels between the events of Psalm 118 and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but they aren’t where the crowd thinks it is. It is in fact the previous verse where the parallels lie: “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” This verse is cited not only in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but also in Acts, Ephesians and 1 Peter. It is one of the most commonly quoted Old Testament verses in the New Testament. In Matthew 21, Jesus references it as part of his own response to the triumphal entry: “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?”

The crowds got it right but even in getting it right they got it wrong. For they saw the parallel in victory, not in the rejection that always accompanies the way of Jesus.

How very human. To this day, there are still those who cling to a vision of Jesus that is clouded by concerns of political power, earthly glory, and vanquishing of one’s enemies. But that is not the way of Jesus at all. And it’s as deep and troubling an irony today as it was then — even more so since we have the New Testament record to set us straight.

The story of Palm Sunday, and the whole story of Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus invites us to check ourselves, our expectations and assumptions. It is a call to ask where we have placed our hope. Do we expect Jesus to be one earthly prince among many, playing the games of political violence and victory? Or, do we accept Jesus as the Prince of Peace, who comes not to be served but to serve, and lay down his life for the sins of the world?

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.

Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Alleluia!

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