given on Sunday, March 29, 2015: Palm or Passion Sunday
While reading the lectionary this week and considering the question of why do we call the Sunday before Easter “Palm Sunday,” I ran across this statement: “Holidays can be important today, too, as annual reminders of what God has done for us.” (Life Application Bible, NIV, p. 121) Just ponder that for a moment . . . That statement was connected to the reading from Exodus, in the Old not the New Testament.
In today’s American culture, we get so wrapped up in the stores’ various holiday displays. We groan when the seasons are hurried along by the retailers putting out the next holiday’s unique trappings weeks even months ahead of time. Yet we also are wooed by the appealing displays that trigger our impulse buying the moment we see it. Buying decisions become whimsical rather than planned.
What does this have to do with today? Today is Palm Sunday. Why is it important? Palm Sunday begins Holy Week. This was the beginning day of the Jewish Passover and the tradition was for families to make a journey to Jerusalem for a huge festival. The city was bubbling over with people, the vendors were out, especially around the temple, palm branches were waving much like Americans wave flags during parades, competitions, and so on.
Passover was the Jewish people’s Fourth of July. God had protected them and they had been freed from the Egyptian captivity. They had been slaves and now they were free. There was a reason to celebrate and the events during Passover were as traditional to the Jewish people as the fireworks, apple pie, hot dogs, hamburgers, parades, and festivals are to Americans over the Fourth of July weekend.
The study note states holidays are important in the remembrance of what God has done for us and the note continues with a directive:
“. . . Develop traditions in your family to highlight the religious significance of certain holidays. These serve as reminders to the older people and learning experiences for the younger ones.” (Ibid)
As a church family, the emphasis we place on the various Christian holidays serve as teaching tools. We remember, yes, but more importantly we teach.
All of us have family traditions that we maintain. The tradition might be a daily one like sitting down for a family meal that we begin with a table blessing. Some traditions may not be centered on Christian living, but the tradition probably has a major significance for the family. Maybe the tradition is centered on a child’s birth or an engagement or possibly a traditional bridal shower. The tradition adds significance and value to life transitions—and family tales told later on.
The story of Passover begins in the Old Testament, Exodus 12:1-10 in the lectionary. Reading through the scripture reconnects us to an ancient, pre-Christian event that was so important it has been preserved even today in the Jewish tradition but also connected to the Christian tradition.
The Exodus scripture carefully explains how the Jewish people were to prepare for their escape. It begins with very detailed instructions on preparing a meal, even how to dress and how to eat the meal. God wanted them prepared with their tummies full for an immediate escape. They had to be ready to run. By reading a few more verses past the preparation, the Passover event is explained:
11 “These are your instructions for eating this meal: Be fully dressed,[a] wear your sandals, and carry your walking stick in your hand. Eat the meal with urgency, for this is the Lord’s Passover. 12 On that night I will pass through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn son and firstborn male animal in the land of Egypt. I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, for I am the Lord! 13 But the blood on your doorposts will serve as a sign, marking the houses where you are staying. When I see the blood, I will pass over you. This plague of death will not touch you when I strike the land of Egypt.” (NLT)
The Jewish people who followed God’s instructions escaped Egyptian slavery. These are the ancestors of the Christians today who celebrate Easter and the connection is the Passover tradition.
Why do we celebrate Passover, then? The Christian tradition celebrates Passover with a twist because it provided the setting for Christ’s final week and crucifixion in Jerusalem. Remember, Jesus was raised Jewish. The Jewish people following Jesus anticipated him to become a political leader, not the peaceful, quiet image of God today’s Christians now honor as the Messiah, the Savior, the Triune God.
Palm Sunday is the most common word for this particular day, but a second descriptor is Passion Sunday. The connotative meaning of Passion Sunday is a more accurate label in the Christian tradition as we know it. Passion refers to intense emotions, but also is defined as “the suffering and death of Jesus.” (OxfordDictionary.com)
Palm or Passion Sunday is the first day that Jesus’ narrative begins the final week of his life. Palm Sunday clearly connects with the Jewish Passover tradition, and the week continues through Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and ending with Easter Sunday. Christians celebrate the horrible events just as the Jewish followed God’s advice about Passover:
14 “This is a day to remember. Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord. This is a law for all time. 15 For seven days the bread you eat must be made without yeast. On the first day of the festival, remove every trace of yeast from your homes. Anyone who eats bread made with yeast during the seven days of the festival will be cut off from the community of Israel. 16 On the first day of the festival and again on the seventh day, all the people must observe an official day for holy assembly. No work of any kind may be done on these days except in the preparation of food.
17 “Celebrate this Festival of Unleavened Bread, for it will remind you that I brought your forces out of the land of Egypt on this very day. This festival will be a permanent law for you; celebrate this day from generation to generation. (Exodus 12:14-17)
The structure for Passion Week is based on this directive, but the events of Holy Week for Christians no longer depends of the significance of the Jewish tradition, but on the events that lead to Jesus’ capture, trial, torture, and crucifixion.
God’s plan followed God’s concept of time. Passover occurred around 1410 BC. His words in Exodus began the series of events that indicate a constant monitoring of how his children were living. Throughout the Old Testament, there are warnings, advice, stories, hymns and prayers that included references to future possibilities. The people were to celebrate the Jewish holiday in order to keep the memory alive but also to teach the new generations. For instance, the lectionary included Psalm 31:9-16:
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
Tears blur my eyes.
My body and soul are withering away.
10 I am dying from grief;
my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
I am wasting away from within.
11 I am scorned by all my enemies
and despised by my neighbors—
even my friends are afraid to come near me.
When they see me on the street,
they run the other way.
12 I am ignored as if I were dead,
as if I were a broken pot.
13 I have heard the many rumors about me,
and I am surrounded by terror.
My enemies conspire against me,
plotting to take my life.
Our understanding of the events we now celebrate echo those lifted up to God by the Jewish people sometime after Passover and maybe even as recently as a thousand years later around 586 BC. Again God’s time is not our perception of time.
Today, we are over 2,000 years past that Jewish Passover that lead to Jesus’ death, so why celebrate a Jewish holiday? We celebrate the Christian Passion or Holy Week beginning today with Palm Sunday. The reason we celebrate the passion, the life and death of Jesus, is to remember God’s gift of his only son so that we might have life eternal. We celebrate this particular Christian holiday to teach the future generations of the passion God has for each of us.
Dear Loving God,
You never fail to remember us even at our worst.
You never hand us more than we can handle.
The generations of the faithful have kept the story alive.
The generations celebrate the story to teach the story.
Guide us to celebrate with grace and love.
Guide us to grow in faith so passion lives.
Each day of this holy week, we will pray passionately
Each day of this holiday, we will share the story
With all that we can,
In as many ways that we can,
So others may experience your grace. –Amen