The children of the Hebrews, bearing branches of olive, went out to meet the Lord, crying out and saying: Hosanna in the highest.
Anthem at the Blessing of Palms
Few occasions in the liturgical life of the Church mirror with greater honesty the situation they seek to describe than the Palm Procession on the Sunday of the Passion, commonly called “Palm Sunday.”
The usual pattern of Sunday morning comes crashingly to a halt. The geography of worship is transported from twenty-first century Oregon to first century Roman-occupied Palestine. In place of the nave, we gather in the echoing Parish Hall, forming an uneasy semi-circle of parishioners looking like fish out of water, removed from the familiar, orderly ranks of pews. Instead of the organ prelude, the quiet time of preparatory prayers, the ringing of the service-bell, and all standing in unison to begin the liturgy, there is the murmur of the crowd, the screech of babes in arms, and the occasional burst of energy as a young child bolts from its parent’s restraining embrace, making a break for the wide-open space that denotes the usually un-filled front pews in church. A brief chase ensues. People shift from foot to foot. All is a bit uncertain, not-according-to-schedule, somewhat “un-Anglican.”
Commencing with an exchange of glances between the priest and the music director, the Liturgy suddenly launches into action. The choir announces: Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest! It has begun. The first words are words of blessing and excitement that He—HE—is in our midst.
The story of Palm Sunday is then told once again, chanted slowly, with great dignity—telling us that this semi-organized situation is exactly the environment of Christ’s Triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was a curious mix of improvisation, divine plan, and mistaken identity. It was so human, so true to Jesus.
The palms—with a few branches of olive from the parish’s lone specimen held aloft by members of the choir—are blessed with the sign of the cross, holy water, and incense. Supple greenery, destined to grow brown and stiff, receives the royal treatment in sacramental terms. How much this echoes the day’s events, when a young rural preacher and healer is hailed—for a time—as the solution to Israel’s captivity before being rejected, tossed out of town, and killed with all the reviling scorn disappointed hearts can hurl.
The palms make their way around the assembly (some children immediately realizing their potential as weaponry), the parade forms up and lurches out of the Parish Hall. Some years we step out into sun; most Palm Sundays here are dappled or drenched in some form of rain. But all of them recall with haphazard and stunning honesty that we—like our spiritual predecessors, the “children of the Hebrews” the choir sings of before we parade out—are a changeable people, volatile and in need of a lover of souls who can overcome our chaotic, lost hearts. That is what we journey into as we make our way to the rest of the worship on this day and the whole week to come. We are stepping out into the place where we fall, and God catches us in the most unheard-of embrace ever known.
Liturgy’s gift so often comes to us in the raucous juxtaposition, the unintended moment when this collides with that, and suddenly God’s desire for our healing, our redemption fluoresces brightly before us. Palm Sunday, with its extraordinary pairing of sacred encounter and an admixture of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade (complete with the sense that the whole thing might just go off the rails) is a day particularly ripe with this potential.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.