Did you notice no mention of palm branches in today’s reading? We call today Palm Sunday, but the spreading of branches mentioned in some of the gospels is not the most important part of the story. Donkey Sunday would be better for this is where the donkey has a starring role (not at Christmas!). Jesus has organised for this donkey to be available; he plans this visual dramatic entry into the city, and the crowds are energised. The donkey links us back to the prophet Zechariah (Zech 9:9)
“your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
That is why Matthew adds the foal alongside the donkey in his account. For the Jews who were waiting for their Messiah the symbolism was obvious, but there had been numerous apparent Messiahs and prophets and would-be Kings in recent years so some would not be too quick to jump on board. Roman soldiers, a bit like riot police would be watching deciding when to step in.
We have domesticated this story and put it inside church when it should be in the public square. The branches which were torn off trees were to create a presence, along with the shouting; the clothes laid on the road were a sign of the crowd humbling themselves before the King.
The donkey is almost a carnivalesque creature. This King is not on a white charger or in a chariot, but on a beast of burden. It is both a sign of humility but may also be making fun of the Roman pomp. Again we have lost the feeling of the original when we make it a decorous time to process while singing hymns.
But as long as we can get beyond just making it a different Sunday, then our signs will help us. The Palm Cross is a reminder that the King who we greet is the one who was crucified, the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign to put it the other way round.
As we hold our crosses, as we – I hope – put them somewhere visible for the coming months, we remember we are signed with the cross at baptism, we are called to follow in the way of the cross as disciples of Jesus, our salvation is bought at the price of the cross, and the cross is empty because Jesus is risen. The Palm Cross can remind us of the deep truths of our faith. In a world where power seems to be “winning”, where the brutality of force and the privilege of wealth seem impregnable and leave such suffering for others, Palm Sunday reminds us that Jesus calls us to resist, stand against, stand up for him and for justice, that there will be a cost to this, but ultimately the cross is empty; the dead body was taken down, buried, finished, or so they thought, but the true King, whose power is love, continues to come to us, call us forward, offer new life and welcome us to be partners in building his kingdom.
Rev’d Peter Reiss