Palm Sunday is, second only to Ash Wednesday, my favorite bit of practical theology. On Ash Wednesday, of course, Christians hear read the passage in which Jesus commands the faithful not to go about dirty-faced when the fast. Then, at the outset of a forty-day fast, we dirty our faces. The subtlety of the theological move never ceases to amaze me: in a season dedicated to contemplating our own sins, we face the choice of skipping one of the central ceremonies of the Christian year, thus neglecting the assembly of the faithful; or participating, and thus visibly disobeying the ONE THING that we’re told not to do. Either way, we start out Lent playing from behind.
Likewise with Palm Sunday: on the Sunday before we get the most visitors (excluding on Mother’s Day, but I go to a Southern church), we hear about the moment when the people of Jerusalem were at their most wrong about the Messiah of the LORD. In Mark’s version, the people call out, not about the coming reign of God, but of the coming kingdom of David. They welcome not the dying Christ who will forgive his enemies but the great warrior-king, the one who slaughters Moabites by the yard (go back and read the early chapters of 2 Samuel) and makes his name in the world in a long series of definitive military victories against pagan enemies. In short, when we send our children (does every congregation use the children to bring the palm leaves), we re-enact that moment when Jerusalem sets herself up to turn against the real Jesus.
And that, of course, is the brilliance of the festival. As the culminating Sunday of Lent, we need moments precisely like this, when we can face honestly the ways that we make God in our own image, call on Jesus to give smiling approval to our worst vices (sometimes over coffee), and anoint as the movement of the Spirit our pet political projects. The sophisticated point that Palm Sunday makes, when it’s the last Sunday of Lent (which is to say every year), is that the sins that most need forgiven are the ones we don’t have the imagination to name.
And that’s why, year after year and Sunday after Sunday, I keep teaching the Bible whenever people have the patience to let me. Its narratives and laments and epistles and apocalypses never lose their punch, their ability to reframe the world that I see and to open my eyes to the corners that I’ve tried, wittingly or no, to hide from myself. If indeed the fool says in his heart that there is no God, then Palm Sunday is dedicated to those fools who say in their hearts (whether their brains can hear or not), “God won’t catch me on this one.”
May Lent reach its peak as we confess those sins of which we’re most proud.