We are moving into Holy Week, the climax of the season of Lent and our Lenten journey. Today is the first day of Holy Week, Palm Sunday. In our Christian tradition, Palm Sunday has been one of the important Sundays of the year. This is the day we Christians commemorate the liberation from the bondage of Egypt. This is the day we reflect on how the Christmas message, “peace on earth,” is practised. And this is the day we are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, the religious and political capital of Judea.
All Gospels including John report on the event of Palm Sunday. All the stories are similar because they copied the story of Mark, but in today’s Gospel, Luke has a little different perspective that I will highlight. Luke’s Palm Sunday account echoes his Christmas story. When Jesus was born Luke tells us that angels appeared to sing, “Peace on earth,” (Luke 2:14). Now, as Jesus rides his colt towards Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Heaven sings of peace on earth. Luke sees in both stories of his birth and the last week of his life Jesus bringing peace.
Now imagine. You are in Jesus’ time, and you are on the Passover pilgrimage. Scholars estimate Jerusalem probably had around forty thousand inhabitants in the first century. But for a majority festival like Passover, two hundred thousand pilgrims or more would come to the city. Moreover, non-Jewish travellers were also attracted to Jerusalem, commonly described as one of the most beautiful in the ancient Near East.
As you know, Passover is a festival celebrating the Jewish people’s liberation from an earlier colonial empire. Thus, the spirit of the festivity is one of joy. However, the people soon realized that they were subjects of another empire, the Roman Empire. In religious festivals like Passover, the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, came to Jerusalem from Caesarea Maritima, which is 60 miles away from Jerusalem, since the major Jewish festivals often became times of unrest in Jerusalem. He would be entering the city from the west at the head of six hundred-foot soldiers and mounted cavalry with all the pomp and power of the empire.
In contrast to this imperial procession, Jesus planned his own procession from the east; he too planned it in advance. Jesus begins his procession near the Mount of Olives, the traditional location from which people expected the final battle for Jerusalem’s liberation would begin. In this historic location of liberation and freedom, Jesus begins the last week of his ministry. When he sends out for provisions, however, the situation becomes rather strange and surprising. The provisions he seeks are not the weapons of war, but simply a colt. Jesus goes to make the procession of Jerusalem unarmed and riding a colt. The colt has a symbolic meaning; it was usually reserved for ceremonial use since it had never been put to work.
In Jesus’ procession there are no flags or troops on horses but people’s cloaks and leafy branches they have strewn on the road. And the people shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” Other Gospels report that the people shouted “Hosanna.” The people waved palm branches and spread their cloaks on the road. These actions were not only a greeting for Jesus by the people of Jerusalem but a plea, as well, for help from the system that dominated them, because the meaning of Hosanna is “save us” or “rescue us” now.
The meaning of the procession of Jesus was clear; it was a deliberate counter-procession. It was the journey against the stream driven by the Roman empire and the Jewish religious elites. Jesus’ procession intentionally countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the empire’s power and violence that ruled the world. But Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, a vision of the kingdom of God. This contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar was central not only to the Gospels but to the story of Jesus and our Christian life.
Two processions continue today. One a procession of God’s people, everyone included, everyone rejoicing knowing their Messiah, knowing to whom they owe their allegiance, their very lives; a procession of joy, where faith, hope and love are the currency of this divine economy; where justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a river; where the power of God is not just acknowledged but experienced in the movement of this procession to a place God has prepared. Recently I saw this procession in the Indigenous delegates who went to Rome to press the Pope for a residential school apology. It was not their first time but the third time to request an apology from the Pope. After the third procession, our Indigenous delegates received an apology from the Pope.
The other procession is seeking maximum power on its own. Mr. Putin exercises his power without terms and with unlimited power. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced 4.3 million people to leave for neighbouring countries. We don’t know how many people died in both countries because of the war. This war is not a regional war; it has global implications. We are affected by the war directly; countries all over the world including Canada are increasing their military spending. Because of this spending, we may not get much funding in the areas of health care, education and the public good.
Where, then, is hope? I would like to picture the concept of pilgrims from that of the people of Judea who followed Jesus and shouted: “Peace!” They were not just tourists or bystanders. Trips are wonderful ways to get away from the stresses of life. However, they are temporary things. Let us think then about our daily lives. Can we live lives of pilgrimage? Becoming pilgrims means embracing a local, year-round language, rhythms, and practices. Unlike being tourists, we embark on a pilgrimage, not to escape life, but to embrace it more deeply and passionately, to be transformed wholly as persons with new ways of being in community and new hopes for the world. Being a tourist means experiencing something new, but being a pilgrim means becoming someone new; becoming a pilgrim means living lives transformed with the vision of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Holy Week invites us to keep our pilgrimage with Jesus. We have entered the gates of Jerusalem this morning. Which procession are you in? Are you tourists or pilgrims? Will we let God lead us? Will we accept God’s invitation to follow?
I end where I began. Two processions enter Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday and the people respond to Jesus with shouts of “Peace,” “Hosanna! Save us! Rescue us now!” Are we flowing with the stream of the imperial way or moving against that current on the way to the kingdom of God? Let us follow Jesus against the stream. Thanks be to God who shows us the way and goes that way with us, becoming pilgrims together. Amen.