In churches all over the world this Sunday, children will march among the aisles with palm branches, a commemoration of the first jubilant Palm Sunday. The palm branch is a symbol of triumph, waved in ancient times to welcome royalty and extol the victorious. Palms were also used to cover the paths of those worthy of honor and distinction. All four of the gospel writers report that Jesus was given such a tribute. Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a colt, and he was greeted as King. The crowds laid branches and garments on the streets in front of him. An audience of applauders led him into the city and followed after him with chants of blessing and shouts of kingship.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
The King of Israel!
Hosanna in the highest!
The triumph of Palm Sunday is not lost on the young. Long before I could see it’s strange place in the passion narrative, I loved celebrating this story as a child. It was a day in church set apart from others. In a place where we were commonly asked to sit still, we suddenly had permission to cheer and march and draw attention.
But like many stories in childhood that grow complicated as the chapters continue, Palm Sunday is far more than a triumphant recollection of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. The convicting irony of the holiday Christians celebrate strikes with each cheer of victory, for we reenact a scene that dramatically changed in a matter of days. In less time than it takes to plan a king’s coronation, cheers of “Hosanna!” became shouts of crucifixion. The honor that was extended with palms and praises was taken back shortly after it was placed before him. The troubling reality to the triumph of Palm Sunday is that we now know the defeat of the cross is yet to come.
But it is also more than this. With Palm Sunday comes the arrival of holy week in all its darkness, in all its blinding mystery. Would I have been with the marching crowd that cheered him as king only to cheer again as he was marched to Golgotha? What I long to imagine was a fickle crowd—an illustration of the power of “mobthink,” or a sign of a hard-hearted people—only reminds me of my own vacillations with the Son of God. How easily our declarations that he is Lord become denials of his existence with the turn of mood or fortune. How readily hands waving in praise and celebration become fists raised at the heavens in pain or hardship. Like a palm laid down and taken back again, honor bestowed on Sunday can easily be abandoned by Wednesday.
Such are the thoughts my adult mind carries through the story in which I once took only delight. With palms in our hands, we carry the burden of awareness that Jesus himself carried through that first crowd. Though we might suspect or even recognize a Messianic figure before us, we will turn from him. Though we might labor to follow his ways, we will fall short and take back whatever intentions we once laid at his feet. Riding through the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus knew then what he knows now: This honor will be abandoned, the praises will cease, and these branches will be trampled to dust. The cross will still come.
How fitting, then, that in many churches the remains of Palm Sunday literally become the ashes of Ash Wednesday. The palms are burned and the ashes collected. Then on Ash Wednesday services the following year, the ashes are used to mark foreheads with the sign of the cross, the reminder of our humanity, the beginning of another journey toward the mysterious gift of the cross.
This week Christians invite the world to remember the one who comes into the midst of a fickle humanity—duplicity, defeat, violence, injustice, pain, and all. He comes near to good and bad intentions, near the ashes of what was meant to be honor, and the ruins of attempts on our own. Despite oscillating thoughts, despite sin we cannot leave, he invites us into a different story of defeat. The Son has made his triumphal entry. He comes to bring us to the cross, to the one sacrifice that takes away the world’s pain.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.