Getting ready for Holy Week, I’m struck, as always, by how jarring the Palm Sunday liturgy is. One minute we’re all shouting “hosanna, hosanna!” (Greek for ‘save us’) and then the next thing we know, we’re shouting ‘Crucify him.’ It’s emotionally wrenching; hope and expectation give way to fury and fear. No settling in, no probing depths. Our liturgy moves us from place to place, scarcely able to take a breath.
Why not split them up and leave space for the wideness of human experience? The crucifixion happened days after Jesus was first welcomed into Jerusalem with branches and celebration, but Palm Sunday moves you faster than you can feel. The excitement of the crowd! The awkwardness of a procession! The intrigue of a trial, the panic and violence of a mob. Then, death and a terrible silence.
There’s always an artificiality in liturgical life. I don’t mean that it’s false, but just that the deep truths of human experience don’t always slot neatly into whatever happens to be going on in the church year. People die tragic deaths on Christmas while we celebrate God’s incarnation in human flesh. Even as we lament our sin and mourn, babies still get born during Lent. The despair or joy we feel in our own lives doesn’t change because it’s the ‘wrong’ season. But Palm Sunday is something different—its breakneck speed leaves little room for our understanding to unfold. It’s all movement; no time to feel our way forward.
Know what else doesn’t leave any space for taking a minute to settle in and feel a feeling?
As a parent of a 9 and 12 year old, one minute I’m in the most ecstatic flow of meaningful conversation. We might be talking about bullying, or what we’ll have for dinner, or the life cycle of a fruit fly. But the next minute, it’s like a car crash. No one is quite sure what happened, but we definitely need some first responders over here to make sure that nobody loses a limb. Their worlds move so quickly and the stakes are so high, they can’t catch up. When my children were younger, the wild emotional swinging was also my own – one minute amazed by beauty, mystery, and holiness, the next bored out of my mind and thinking I’d sell a kidney for a nap.
This is where Palm Sunday is so helpful. Palm Sunday is a template for the glory of the whole gory mess; we are delighted and despondent, guilty and forgiven. We don’t have to have it all mapped out and analyzed. This strange day of liturgy gives us a chance to see the flashes transcendence in all of it. Nobody at church on Palm Sunday has any illusion that either we as individuals or humanity as a whole have anything figured out. It’s piecemeal, making meaning from moment to moment, seeing where it connects. The only gift we have to bring on Palm Sunday is our attentiveness, and that is true of life itself, particularly life with children. We try to bulldoze our emotions into submission, looking for linearity when there is no such thing. With our lives, like with the wild liturgy of this week, we are embarking on a journey that only God can hold.
We, in turn, need to let God hold us.