I live in Austin, Texas, where, along with much of the country, I expect to remain under a “Shelter in Place” order during Palm Sunday. What a strange contradiction on a Sunday in which we would ordinarily march around the streets of the church, waving palm branches, and loudly singing, “Hosanna in the highest!” Palm Sunday is one of most sensory services of the church year, perfect for children’s participation, even if it usually devolves into children sword fighting with their palms.
And yet this Palm Sunday, there will be no mass gathering, no recreating the crowds who cheered as Jesus came into Jerusalem for his tragic and triumphant end. Instead, many of us will worship alone in our houses, joining worshiping communities virtually rather than physically.
Palm Sunday has always been loaded. In most Episcopal churches we shout “Hosanna!” at the beginning of the service, but then fold in, “Crucify him!” by the end as we read the Passion. We live in the tension of humanity’s best and worst impulses. We live in the tension of a scene bursting with life and a scene marred by death.
In that sense, maybe this Coronavirus season of our lives is the perfect time to celebrate Palm Sunday. We have been asked to sacrifice our normal routines and freedoms in order to preserve the lives of those around us. We feel ourselves full of life, bursting to escape our homes, but sense the spectre of death hovering around us. We watch news of those suffering and dying, but we also read news about all the ways human beings are helping each other. We see the way emergency and hospital workers risk their own lives and safety every day, just as Jesus did by entering Jerusalem.
Naming these tensions of life and death, fear and faith could be an excellent start to a family Palm Sunday observation. Children and adults are all struggling with fear, boredom, and grief these days. Naming these feelings out loud, and holding them in tension with the things for which we are grateful roots us in the Palm Sunday moment. We can wonder aloud with our children about the feelings of all the characters in the story and help them make connections with their own feelings.
We may not have palms, but neither did cultures around the world before the days of air mail. Europeans often used pussy willow or yew branches, Keralan Indians scattered flower petals. Invite your family to take a walk around the block and find a branch or some petals that they can use, then wave them from your porch shouting “Hosanna!” If that feels too attention-grabbing, take those branches and petals and display them on your doorstep (Perhaps with a stuffed donkey accompanying them!) as a sign of the day. One could even draw the triumphant entry with chalk on the sidewalk!
Finally, imagine with your children your triumphant exit! When they get permission to leave the house, where is the first place they want to go? Which friend do they want to invite over? What playground can’t they wait to visit? How will it feel to be back in school or summer camp? Imagining our own joy and excitement can help us relate to the joy and excitement of those welcoming Jesus.
Nothing is normal this year, but we can still mark these liturgical beats. They give us a sense of order in the midst of the chaos and remind us that our story is not over, that God promises us a future. This Holy Week truly will be holy, even if it is not ordinary.
[Image Credit: Photo by Yuri Gripas via Flickr]
The Rev. Sarah Kinney Gaventa is the Dean of Students at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. When shelter in place is over, she is most looking forward to hugging her extended family, visiting with her students face-to-face, and going out for dinner!