Palm Sunday always makes me reflect on some of my more stupid decisions in life. The perm my mother gave me when I was 10. That mean boyfriend I kept around for way too long. That horrible tattoo some junkie gave me in his filthy apartment. The thing I did that one time. The promise I never kept. There are so many regrets to choose from. We all have regrets, but while some of my mistakes are undeniable doozies, unlike some of you...the one mistake I never ever made …was having big hair in the 80s. You know who you are.
But I wonder if the nature of regret, and the practice of morbid reflection itself, is in some way rooted in the idea that we are different now. We like to think it’s true, that given the opportunity to go back and do things differently, we would. We would, as improved, wiser people, make completely different choices. After all, we are better versions of ourselves now. And I kind of think that’s true and I kind of don’t.
I mention this because of how uncomfortable the Palm Sunday story always makes me.
As we read about the fickle crowds waving their palms and laying down their cloaks and shouting hosanna in the highest to the guy riding into Jerusalem on an unimpressive animal, I cringe. I am embarrassed about how sure they seem of themselves and how miserably they are about to fail when put to the test; how quickly their shouts go from hail him to nail him.
That’s what is so melancholic about Palm Sunday to me. We know what’s about to happen. The betrayal and denial and abandonment. The monkey trial and the beating and the carrying of the cross. The nails and the spear and the sour wine.
So all that joyful shouting just feels embarrassing in the shadow of what’s to come.
This week at a live event, I was asked, “Were he to come back today, do you think Jesus would even recognize his church?”
To which I responded, “Oh, for sure. I mean, the church is full of the exact same people it has always been full of. He’d look around and be like, yep, these are mine!”
We may be tempted to think that we are different from the faltering disciples. We may cringe at their so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem because we are in the special position of knowing what’s about to happen.
But the thing is, they did too.
At least they did if they were paying even the least amount of attention to Jesus. He told them more than once that this was all going to happen. He’d do something really cool, like heal someone or some other act of power and his followers would be like hell yeah! And then he’d take the opportunity to say that he is going to be betrayed into the hands of the authorities and then suffer and die. He kept telling them this was about to happen.
And before we blame the disciples for not stopping it, we should remember that there was one guy who stepped in, one guy who did what my instinct would be - which is to try and put a stop to such a pathetic and preventable death. It was Peter. Peter tried. He said God forbid. Don’t go into Jerusalem, Jesus. Because that’s where the prophets get themselves killed and you’re too good to lose. Too peaceful. Too loving for that kind of thing. Surely we can do something about this.
But this was an unstoppable march of events, and when Peter tried to talk Jesus out of it, Jesus didn't pat him on the back and say You know, you’re right. Thanks friend. Not even close. Jesus said Get behind me Satan.
Because no amount of improved humanity could have stopped it. No good intentions, no nobility, no sin avoidance, no piety. Nothing could have stopped this Paschal mystery of God and humanity. No amount of super-good discipleship or wisdom or woke-ness would make a lick of difference to God’s determination to draw all people to God’s self.
We are no different than the shouting crowds - there is no better class of improved people. There are just people.
And as soon as we think the good news is that we know better than those caught up in into the tragic events of that first Holy Week, we are mistaken.
I think maybe it had to happen like this. When the Pharisees told Jesus to stop his disciples from such an embarrassing display, he said that were they to stop, even the stones would cry out. So there had to be crowds who shout praise and friends who betrayed and followers who denied and women who wept and soldiers who mocked and thieves who believed. It would have happened like this even if the Jesus event were happening now instead of then. Even if we knew everything in advance - were we the ones on the street we too would shout Hosanna one day and crucify him the next.
And that’s the good news when it comes down to it.
Because these embarassing people of the Holy Week story are we people. And we people are the likes of which God came to save from ourselves. God did not become human and dwell among us as Jesus to save only an improved, doesn’t-make-the-wrong-choices kind of people. There is no improved version of humanity that could have done any differently. Because we, as we are and not as some improved version of ourselves…we are who Jesus FOR SURE looks at (in all our cringe-worthiness) and say, “yep. these are mine.”
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READ my NYT bestselling memoirs: Pastrix; The Cranky, Beautiful Faith Of A Sinner & Saint (Re-released 2021), Accidental Saints; Finding God In All The Wrong People(2015) and SHAMELESS; A Sexual Reformation (2019).