Palm Sunday: The jester’s joke

Palm Sunday is not so much a triumphal entry as a profound anticlimax, a raspberry, a fart. (Listen.)

Some days, I’m flooded with awe. I look around and I see miracles. I see people affirmed in equal marriage, and victim-survivors acknowledged and believed. I see households working towards equitable arrangements, women in leadership, women in Parliament. I see small acts of justice raining down, and diversity appreciated in myriad ways: and I am filled with hope.

I also see the miracle that is this congregation. Despite shutdown, despite everything, we have grown. People are turning up who once feared there might never be a church for them; people are unfurling and transforming. I see gentleness and grace; I see new connections, new relationships; I see things happening at our gatherings which a year ago we never imagined. I sense the real presence of the Holy Spirit moving among us, and visions and dreams drawing us on.

Other days, I feel overwhelmed. I feel like I can’t bear another month of juggling COVID Safe restrictions and disappointed hopes. I can’t bear another sex scandal in Parliament, or another politician brushing off sexual violence. I can’t bear another Aboriginal death in custody or another instance of white supremacy. I can’t bear fires and floods and other signs of climate collapse, nor can I bear the coup in Burma, or intimate partner violence, or mass shootings in America. I can’t bear the Christian right lobbying in ways which harm me and the people I love; I can’t bear the widespread Christian silence on environment, poverty or violence. I can’t bear to think about all the ways we are trapped by consumer capitalism, and all the ways we fail to be the church.

I am naming all this because it’s Palm Sunday. And all of it—the awe and wonder, the fear and dread—finds recognition in this day. It’s a day of hoping and dreaming of a world that could be, a day of celebration, a day of praise. A day of waving palm branches, and acclaiming our king, and throwing our jackets joyfully on the ground.

But it’s also the day to name our need. To name our fears for our children and for the future. To name our violence, and the structures which condone it, and the ways we are all complicit. To name our blindness, our helplessness and hopelessness; our heavy, heavy hearts.

It’s the day we name just how much we need God to save us, for that is what ‘Hosanna!’ means: Lord, save us now! We are heartsick and desperate and longing for change. We can’t do it alone; we can’t bear the anger and sadness anymore. We are small and weak: our voice is so little. We feel trapped; we cannot see the way ahead: Lord, save us now!

Two thousand years ago, the people were gathering in Jerusalem. They were there to celebrate Passover, that ongoing Jewish festival which marks liberation from the Egyptian empire. This festival, this liberation, touches every area of life: corporate and personal; social and political; economic and domestic. Yet two thousand years ago, the festival was bittersweet: for they were no longer free. Instead, empire after empire had invaded their land; and Rome was currently in charge.

So Passover reminded the people not only of what they’d had, but of what they’d lost; it reminded them of the way life could be. They were longing for liberation; they were longing for justice; they were longing for God to save them through a messianic king. Lord, save us, now!

Like those people in Jerusalem long ago, we too long for God to save us. We want a powerful leader to charge in and throw the smirking salesman off his podium and put the world right. To triple JobSeeker, eliminate rape culture, and make excessive wealth something to be ashamed of. To dismantle white supremacy, levy a colossal carbon tax, and restore every waterway to health. Lord, save us, now!

We pray and we pray and we cry out: but all we get is Jesus, sitting on a young colt, feet ludicrously dangling, in an entrance that lampoons every royal hope.

A victorious Roman general enters a city in a grand procession. He wears a laurel crown, rides a chariot pulled by white horses, and goes to the temple to offer sacrifices. All that he has looted and plundered is on display; the crowds sing hymns and praise him.

But Jesus enters the city not in a chariot, but on a young donkey. He won’t be crowned with laurels, but with thorns. The crowds don’t sing his praises, but God’s. And he doesn’t participate in the oppressive sacrificial system of the temple, but offers his own self as a once-and-for-all sacrifice, which replaces the temple system for good.

What the people see, what we should see, is street theatre, the jester’s joke. A king riding an animal signifying peace; a king without weapons; a king without defences. A king leading no army, just a ragged crowd of people otherwise rejected and despised. A king whose only wealth is love. A king who borrows food to set a table: in the wilderness, in an upstairs room, on the beach; a king who invites ordinary people to dine with him and to partner in his work.

It’s a profound anti-climax, a raspberry, a fart. We want God to send us a powerful leader; all we get is a jester, a fool. We want miracles of radical transformation; all we get are hints and intimations, possibilities of hope, the long slow work of the gospel. We want a reason to believe; all we get is an invitation to join the parade, knowing we may yet deny him, knowing we may yet shout, “Crucify!” And even if we manage not to get swept up by the mob, we suspect that success is not guaranteed, and being noticed may lead to our own crucifixion.

And like a failed joke, it fizzles: for we are entering Holy Week with carnival joy, but we are riding straight into failure, betrayal, suffering, and death. Everything about Palm Sunday points to paradox. Joy and devastation, loyalty and betrayal, hope and despair are intermingled; the king will kneel to serve. Adoring crowds soon cry “Crucify!”; good people suffer; god dies.

Of course, we can reject this story of paradox. We can spurn its humiliation, its indignity, its bad taste, and we can opt for a straightforward god and a theology of domination and control; and many people, many Christians, do.

But this Palm Sunday, I invite you to embrace the paradox and to bring your whole self to the parade: the awe and wonder, the fear and dread; the faith and the doubt; the hope and the despair. The part of you which is wholeheartedly cheering, and the part of you which wants no part in Jesus. The part of you which makes you glow with pride, and the part which makes you shrivel up in shame. The part of you which is wounded, and the part which is robust and whole.

Because I have a hunch that this jester-king has another joke up his sleeve: a joke involving a tomb which becomes a womb, a death which births life, a disappearance which creates a new community of love. And I have a hunch that salvation is not the simple fix of a more powerful leader, but a slow healing which makes people and communities whole.

Because through the paradox of serious play, the jester skewers our self-importance and upends our expectations. Through the paradox of servant leadership, the jester shows us how to relate to one another, how to love. And through the paradox of the wounded healer, the jester reconciles all the fractured parts of ourselves and our world. Not just the nice bits, the faithful bits, the good bits, but the bits which betray and deny and despair; the bits which have no hope.

And I have a hunch that, through the jester, God really does save us, even here, even now. Perhaps all we need to do is join the parade, lay down our dignity, and ask. “Hosanna! Lord, save us, now!” Amen. Ω

Reflect: What do you find difficult to bring to the parade?

A reflection on Mark 11:1-11 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 28 March 2021 (Lent 6B, Palm Sunday) © Sanctuary 2021.

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