“In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory” (Isaiah 45:25)
Where thy victorious feet,
Great God, should tread,
In honor this green tapestry is spread;
And as all future things
are past to thee,
The triumph here proceeds the victory.
Giambattista Marino’s poem “Palm Sunday” encapsulates the tension that drives the liturgy for this Sunday. Outside in the morning sun, we read the great story of Jesus’ tickertape parade. We wave our green branches, acclaim him as King, and pray to “follow him in the way that leads to eternal life.” It’s rather Easter-y, at the head of this week of blood-red passion. Soon, though, we follow his cross into the Church, to hear the story of that path, the one that leads up Calvary’s hill. The lights grow dim, our hymns change to a minor key, our shouts give way to silent grief.
Some liturgical scholars treat the palm procession as an embarrassment, a concession to sentimental tradition, to be laid aside quickly once the real aim of the day comes into view. The children’s joyful shouts, the royal hosannas, sound fickle and naive beside that other cry from the crowd, “Crucify him.”
But those children say more than they know. The passion story is not really a tragedy, not a timeless tale of the world ‘s misery and injustice. It’s a pitched battle between God in the flesh and all the forces of evil. It’s the contest all of time has waited to see. And the final outcome is clear enough.
The note of ultimate triumph is unmistakable in this Sunday’s texts. Isaiah proclaims that every knee shall bow before him on the great day when his just purposes are accomplished, that “all the offspring of Israel shall triumph and glory.” Psalm 22, the great passion hymn that springs from the lips of Jesus movingly evokes his suffering and grief, but God does not ignore the cry of the afflicted. He will be vindicated, and the world will know of his saving deeds. Paul’s impassioned song of Christ’s humility also ends on a note of victory. God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the highest name.
Even Luke’s sad tale is shot through with notes of hope. To the man beside him he promises, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” You will share the fruits of this victory just as soon as it’s won.
We wave the palms because this sad story isn’t really sad. It’s good news for sinners like us, it’s the source of our hope, our peace, our true and lasting joy.
Look It Up
Read Luke 4:13 and 22:3. Who is Jesus’ real opponent in the Passion story?
Think About It
Should Sunday’s cross be veiled?