Palm Sunday, March 20 – Psalms 24, 29, 103; Zech. 9:9–12; 1 Tim. 6:12–16; Zech. 12:9–11; 13:1, 7–9; Luke 19:41–48
(BCP Readings for today)
A Palm Sunday Reflection on Psalm 118:19-27
The final episode of Downton Abbey aired recently. For six years some of us – many of us – followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs in their grand, English manor, and the lives of their servants downstairs. The plotlines were small scale and human – financial struggles, class conflicts, births and tragic deaths, love found and love lost and love found again, devotion and betrayal, sibling rivalry – all set against the broader backdrop of enormous cultural change in early 20th century England.
How do you end such a sprawling drama? The writer, Julian Fellowes, chose to end happily: to resolve conflicts, to rehabilitate certain “villainous” characters, to chart a way forward filled with hope and possibility and love. It’s been said that every story has a happy ending if you just know when to stop telling it. Fellowes stopped at the right time.
But we – the outside observers – know what the characters in the story do not. We know that World War II looms large and near and that some we’ve seen birthed at Downton may well die on the battlefields. We know that many of the great English houses simply will not withstand the cultural and financial changes of the era; we know that World War II marks the end of that way of life. The final episode of Downton Abbey is a snapshot frozen in time while the great story continues beyond the momentarily happy ending. Such snapshots always have a bittersweet quality to them.
The triumphal entry is such a snapshot. All of the small scale, human plotlines of Jesus’ life – the birth in the manger, the flight to Egypt, the life of a working peasant, the baptism in the Jordan, the temptation in the wilderness, the healing of this woman, the cleansing of that leper, this exorcism, that parable – one by one have led to this grand moment on this large stage. Every detail of the picture – every word, every gesture – is significant, and that significance is lost on no one. The king, the son of David, comes to his city Jerusalem in inaugural procession, hailed by his subjects. This is our king, not Herod. The Messiah, the representative of God himself, returns to the temple as foretold by the prophets. This is our Lord, not Caesar. People and city and temple all at Jesus’ feet: this is our land, not Rome’s. Every story has a happy ending if you just know when to stop telling it. This is that moment.
But we know what the characters in the story – the fickle crowds, the too confident apostles, the faithful women – do not know. Opposition is rising. Plans are being laid. Betrayals are being plotted. We know that almost all who now stand will fall and fail. We know that shouts of Hosanna! will become cries of Crucify him! Palm branches waved in greeting will become thorns woven into a crown. Coats strewn on the road will transform into a purple robe to mock a would-be king.
The triumphal entry is a snapshot frozen in time while the great story continues beyond the momentarily happy ending. It is bittersweet because we know, we know what lies ahead. Of course, so does Jesus. He has been trying to prepare his closest followers for some time, to tell them that the story, in the short term, does not end well, that a great fall must come before the rising again. But they will not, and perhaps cannot, listen. This parade is their moment, everything they have been longing for. It is little wonder that Jesus very shortly weeps over the city, weeps for the city. He knows what they do not.
The snapshot of the triumphal entry is captured perfectly in Psalm 118.
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we pray, O LORD!
O LORD, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the
LORD (Ps 118:19-26a, ESV)!
We can hear this song on the lips of those waving palm branches and spreading coats, sung and shouted by Peter and James and John, can’t we? But neither the story nor the Psalm stops here and Jesus knows it. Perhaps, very quietly, we hear him sing the next stanza:
The LORD is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar (Ps 118:27).
The triumphal entry – this grand procession – ends at the altar, ends with sacrifice. And Jesus know what the rest do not: that this procession ends at Calvary and that he is the festal sacrifice to be bound with cords and nailed to the altar of the cross.
Every story has a happy ending if you just know when to stop telling it. But real life goes on. The procession into Jerusalem punctuated with shouts of Hosanna! soon proceeds through Jerusalem and outside the city with weeping and wailing. And there the story seems to end – not happily this time, but tragically, a snapshot frozen in time. But again, we know what the characters do not. There will be another procession in three days – a small one with just a few women carrying some spices to anoint a body. And we know what they do not.