The Devotional Meaning of Palm Sunday

28 March 2010


Today is Palm Sunday, which, though celebrated variously across all Christian denominations, still continues to unify in celebration what remains of Christendom. As a part of that Christian civilization, we understand ourselves better if we can understand the role of Palm Sunday better, because this is the history that has shaped us whether or not we identify with that history.

The dialectic of celebration and mourning that runs through the Lenten season from beginning to end is played out with very greater intensity until the events of the passion itself on Good Friday. This dialectic expresses itself throughout the symbolism of the occasion of Palm Sunday. Christ enters Jerusalem as though a king at the head of a conquering army, but he does so on an ass. On Palm Sunday, Christ had one week to live, but the pace of events was clearly increasing, and the entry into Jerusalem can be seen as “upping the ante” on the part of the Jesus and his followers.

The symbol of a triumphal entry into a city could not have been mistaken in antiquity, and even today we retain a sense of the drama of conquest that culminated in such displays. Certainly the powers that be (or, as it were, the powers that were) would not have missed this significance as they looked on while the people of Jerusalem laid down palm fronds before Christ.

For the Christian movement during Christ’s life, this was the moment of greatest worldly attainment. This was the moment of temporal ascendancy. This was the moment of the public recognition and honor of Christ. But we know that these were not the things that Christ taught his followers. One scarcely needs to quote scripture to underline this point, but there is of course the famous and unambiguous passage from John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Christ recognized from the beginning that his kingdom is not of this world; for many people, if not most, this realization comes late, perhaps too late, after the moment of triumph. Probably most people have had the experience of striving for something in life, and as one strives the moment of triumph, the moment of attainment, is held in the imagination as the goal of the striving. When that moment has come and gone, and triumph is followed by disappointment or tragedy or — perhaps worst of all — mere life with nothing left to strive for, one realizes that one’s kingdom is not of this world. To make one’s kingdom a kingdom of this world is to predicate one’s kingdom upon something more ephemeral even than life.

Whether we frame our insight into the human condition in terms of the spirit — “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” — or in terms of the mind — “Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt.” — the Western way to wisdom recognizes that hopes founded upon the world are vain, while hopes founded upon what Augustine called the inner man are the only hopes that will not fail us.

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