Palm Sunday | Caught between two parades

There were, and always will be, two parades: one embodying the power of empire, the other, vulnerability and self-sacrifice. (Listen.)

There were two parades. The first poured in through the west gate. The governor was visiting from his coastal palace at Caesarea Maritima. The cavalry rode before him: armed men on horseback, helmets gleaming. Foot soldiers marched in strict formation, leather armour creaking. Statues of golden eagles glinted atop long poles. Swords rattled; bridles clanked; trumpets blared; drums beat. The governor himself was borne by a great stallion, glossy, muscular, powerful. The governor’s head was held high, his eyes averted from the mass of humanity in the streets.

He was here for the Passover. Sure, the Jews could have their little festival, commemorating their so-called victory over the Egyptians. No military defeat, that: instead, they claimed frogs, locusts, and, oh, what was it? plagues had set them free. Very well. Let them celebrate. But they would not be allowed to forget: Rome was in charge now. The governor would make quite sure of that. He would remind them of the emperor’s titles: Son of God, Saviour of the nations, architect of peace; and his soldiers would make another thing clear: resistance is futile. If anyone threatened the peace, swords, spears and crosses would be quickly employed.

The second parade walked in through the east gate. No warhorses, here, just a nursing donkey and her little knock-kneed colt. No red banners, no golden eagles glinting in the sun. No soldiers, either, just women and children, cripples and lepers, bludgers and no-hopers and out-of-work fisherfolk. This rider wore no armour; there was no ostrich feather in his hat. His tunic was ragged; his sandals were scuffed; his face was gentle. This rider gazed at the crowd, with love. The people with him were singing, and laying branches and tattered cloaks upon the ground. As the donkey walked, her colt started to grizzle; he butted and nuzzled and tried to get milk. The donkey sneezed, then farted; the rider threw back his head and laughed.

The city expected the first parade. The streets were ready; the people made way; the city cowered under the threat. The second parade was a surprise: and it shook everyone. For the people remembered. Long ago, the prophet Zechariah had promised a gentle king. One who would come riding a donkey and offering freedom; one who would disarm the military powers, take away all weapons, and proclaim peace to all peoples.

And here he was, with a crowd shouting prayer, shouting praise, ‘Hosanna to King David’s Son! Help us, we pray! Blessed is the one who comes in God’s name! Save us!’—for ‘save us’ is what ‘Hosanna’ means.

All glory, honour and praise … not to Caesar, not to the governor, but to a jester leading a ragtag bunch of nobodies. ‘Save us, please, save us!’ … from a brutal Roman peace.

The soldiers marched in the west gate, swords at the ready. The nobodies came in the east gate, palm branches aloft.

Caught between two parades, terrorized by Rome, the people remembered, and wondered. And in this time of global threat, economic collapse, increasingly authoritarian government, growing police powers, and unchecked corporate power, we might remember and wonder, too:

Emperor or jester? Military might or self-sacrificial death? Wealth or poverty? Power or vulnerability? Crown or cross?

Which do you really trust? Which will save us? Which offers a true and lasting peace? And do you dare follow this parade? Ω

Sanctuary is not meeting in the flesh right now. If you would like to join our Zoom gatherings, drop us an email and we’ll send you the link!

A reflection on Matthew 21:1-11 given to Sanctuary, 5 April 2020 (Palm Sunday) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Description of the first parade borrows from Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 2–4. Image credit: Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash.

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