We celebrate what is traditionally known as Palm Sunday on the sixth Sunday of Lent.
Here is my paraphrase of the Palm Sunday narrative featured in the lectionary texts this week:
As Jesus rode the young colt into Jerusalem,
People came from all around to honor him.
Young and old, rich and poor, followers of the way and cynical onlookers,
Spread their coats before him and waved palm branches in exuberant celebration.
“Hosanna! Hosanna!” They cried!
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! He is our king!”
This is one of the few days of the year in my church experiences where children get to be noisy and interrupt the adult worship service with their loud and playful shouts of “Hosanna!” while waving palm branches.
But perhaps a more faithful reenactment of Palm Sunday would mean the entire church is a little rowdier because, on the first Palm Sunday, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was celebrated by everyone the crowd represented: people of all ages, sexualities and genders, rich and poor, Jews and those of other ethnicities, those whose lives had been literally touched by Jesus and those who were still hoping to experience his healing touch, the marginalized and the powerful.
This was definitely a celebratory day, but what is less often noted, especially in the white churches I have been a part of, is the subversive nature of the first Palm Sunday.
Allan Dwight Callahan writes in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary that there was historical and political significance to what played out on the streets of Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.
“The palm frond was an ancient symbol of Israel’s liberation,” he explains. “To wave palm fronds in Jerusalem was to declare the liberation of Israel. Jesus was being greeted as a royal liberator.”
Languishing under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire, the people of Israel desperately needed and wanted someone who would save them from the trauma of their daily lives.
I think Jesus knew this deep in his bones. His life was not safe from empire.
Obery Hendricks reminds us in The Politics of Jesus that “until his last earthly breath, Jesus was also an oppressed Roman colonial subject with all that meant.”
The crowd’s cheers of “hosanna!” literally means “save us!”
These words echo Psalm 118, a beautiful psalm that proclaims the Lord’s salvation from distress, fear, hate and imperial oppression. It begins and ends by affirming the goodness of the Divine and that “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
Salvation in this context is much more than a distant, future, elusive eternal salvation in heaven. The crowd needed and longed for salvation now.
My ideas about salvation are expanding. While I used to understand salvation as something narrowly defined by the promise of eternal life in heaven after I die, it may encompass so much more.
During my time in seminary, I have come to understand salvation and healing as synonymous. In addition, as Psalm 118 demonstrates, salvation is accessible and practical for our current lives right now when we are overwhelmed with distress, fear and daily life.
So, what does it mean when we shout “hosanna!” in 2021?
We do not live under the oppression of the Roman Empire, but empire still reigns. As I type, marginalized communities in America languish under the unbalanced effects of COVID-19 and unequal distribution of the vaccines, as well as lethal forms of racism, unemployment and so much more.
Lamentably, in my experience, white Christianity overlooks these real and present physical injustices in order to preach a distant salvation in heaven someday.
Because of this, Miguel De La Torre, in his latest book, Decolonizing Christianity, claims that “if any hope exists for white folk’s salvation, it can occur only through the God of the oppressed.”
As we wave our palm branches and cheer on Sunday morning, let us all celebrate that now is the time of salvation and that we get to be part of it!
But let us (as white Christians in America) not look to the alabaster white Jesus we have been taught. Let us step out of our comfort zone to see Jesus who came to live among us, who brings healing to our lives today.
In the words of James Cone, “Jesus is where the oppressed are and continues his work of liberation there. Jesus is not safely confined in the first century. He is our contemporary, proclaiming release to the captives and rebelling against all who silently accept the structures of injustice” (Black Theology and Black Power).
Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the Lenten season. An article reflecting on the lectionary texts for each Sunday during Lent will appear weekly. The previous articles in the series are:
Sneaking Off to Mass and Returning with a Face Tattoo | Jessica McDougald
Do God’s Promises Extend to Savlanut, Sarah and Tseba? | Meredith Stone
Why You Should Enter the Shadow of Lent | Fran Pratt
Lent Calls us to Embrace Foolishness | Richard Wilson
Plagues, Vaccinations and the Future | Margot Hodson