Sunday, March 20, 2005

Passion and Palms

This was the first Sunday that I've been able to go to Broadway Church in four weeks. I could go when I'm traveling, but I'm not really one of those people who finds their way to churches when they are out of town. Growing up I always admired some of my friends' families for doing that, but was secretly glad I didn't have to (I was kind of shy). Anyway, I'm glad I got to go today. While riding in the car after lunch with my friends Francis and our pastor's 15 year-old son, Conor, I made an off-hand remark about how I'm always late for church. Conor said, "yeah, and that's when you show up." I'll defend my church attendance record some other time, but the real reason I was glad I went is because today is Palm Sunday; actually at our church it is Palm and Passion Sunday.

Perhaps I should explain the difference to friends of mine who may not go to churches where waving palm branches is a yearly event. Long story short, Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter. In Methodist churches and some other denominations you get a palm leaf when you arrive for church, which you then wave during a part of the service (they say the leaves are then burnt and used during Ash Wednesday services the following year, though I don't know how they keep up with them). The word "hosanna" gets used a lot during the Palm Sunday service. In most churches the idea is that you celebrate Christ's entry into Jerusalem just like the folks in the Holy City did--before they nailed him to a cross a week later.

Even though we didn't celebrate Palm Sunday at First Baptist Church in Batesville, we read the Bible enough to know about it. And Brother Don , our beloved pastor, always had something intelligent to say during the Palm Sunday sermons, so I knew how the story turned out.

When I started going to churches where Palm Sunday was celebrated I was sort of confused. Why celebrate what ultimately turned out to be a big misunderstanding? Jesus was obviously not who the people looking to get out from under Roman rule thought he would be. Not that he didn't give them a heads up on what he was about--rode in on a donkey, ate with sinners and the Jerusalem IRS, took an obvious pass on the Passover Sale at the temple. There were signs. Whooping it up with palm leaves on Palm Sunday seemed to kind of miss the point of the story, which was, to me at least, "Hmm...Jesus is not our trained monkey. He does things his way, and he often does not take the predictable route. And Wow! We humans can be real jackasses when things don't go the way we want ."

For the past couple of years, our church has celebrated "Palm and Passion Sunday" which is making a lot more sense to me. This year the service sort of revolved around the thief on the cross next to Christ's--the one who recognized Jesus's innocence and his own guilt, and thought to ask Jesus to keep him in mind when he entered his Kingdom.

Imagine having been nailed to a cross. Hanging on the cross next to you is another guy--bloodied, beaten and naked. Were I the crucified thief, I don't know if I could have managed to believe that a divine and royal future was in the cards for Jesus at that point. I can only pray my faith is that strong.

So in addition to waving palms today, we carried nails to a cross at the front of the church to symbolize our own need and desire for forgiveness. Rather than celebrating with joy the prelude to Christ's crucifixion we left the sanctuary in silence to reflect for the next week on the Passion (the event, not the movie. Oh, and our congregation is never really silent, but we were as quiet as we could manage to be.). I was surprised to learn later that this new way of doing things has irritated some people in our church. They are upset that the Palm party is no longer the main focus of the service. This kind of reaction is not uncommon these days (How many times have I heard "we shouldn't change the way it's been done for thousands of years" in the past 14 months?). But frankly, I'm not that interested in celebrating how foolish we humans can be. Reflecting on past behavior? Considering ways things could be different? Yes. Ritualizing mistakes? No.

So here is to all of those churches who recognized the connection between the Palms and the Passion (sounds like a bad soap opera title) and who are now asking me to pray about it over the next week. I took one of the extra nails home with me.


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