Broken Hosannas—or why it’s religiously important to admit that Palm Sunday (and Easter) can no longer be rendered coherent
A short “thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation
Today is Palm Sunday, the day when Christian churches retell the story found in all four gospels about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem shortly before his arrest, trial and execution. In the gospel of Mark the basic event is briefly described as follows:
“And many persons spread their cloaks in the road, but others stalks of straw, cutting them from the fields. And both those going ahead and those following after cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David; hosanna in the highest places!” (trans. David Bentley Hart).
Generally, when a liberally inclined, biblically literate minister of religion takes on this story they will do at least three things.
Firstly, they’ll ask whether the story has any basis in historical fact. In this case, because, very unusually, the story appears in all four gospels, it’s considered to be well-attested and so something like it may — I stress “may” — have happened.
Secondly, they’ll consider what is known as the story’s sitz im leben — literally its “place in life.” The hope here is better to understand the sociological, religious and political circumstances in first-century Palestine in which the story was created, preserved and first transmitted.
Thirdly, they will then consider the symbolic meaning that is, or might be, present in, for example, the fickle faith of the cheering crowd which was so soon to dissipate, the type of leafy branches used, the cloaks spread upon the road, and whether Jesus was riding a donkey or a colt or, as Matthew rather bizarrely claims, upon both a donkey and a colt.
Lastly, they’ll try to offer up to their audience a contemporary meaning of the story, often one arrived at by taking the whole story, or one of its elements, as a metaphor or an analogy for some other religious or spiritual phenomenon.
But today, unusually, I want to address the basic story head-on and rather literally so as to help us notice something quite striking and, I hope, useful to us as a contemporary liberal religious community with its roots in the Christian tradition.
The basic story is about welcoming, with great acclamation — “Hosanna!” — some actual person with real, life-changing, metaphysical significance, into one’s own town.
Now, in our own age, it is perfectly possible to imagine that had news spread yesterday evening that Her Majesty the Queen or some extremely famous pop star like Beyoncé or Ed Sheeran were entering Cambridge this morning, many, many people — perhaps numbering in their thousands — would by now be lining the streets. But none of these people, these famous people, can be said to be imbued with real, life-changing, metaphysical significance.
However, try as I might, I cannot imagine more than half-a-dozen people out on the streets had news spread that some more-or-less unknown person who was being proclaimed as the Messiah — that is to say, the chosen or anointed one of God — were coming into town. This was, of course, the metaphysical claim about Jesus, made, in various different ways, by all the gospel writers.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that, today, our culture’s mood, it’s way of attuning itself to the world, is now so changed that such a metaphysical claim about the messianic status of an individual person makes absolutely no sense to almost every twenty-first-century Western individual.
And here we run up hard against something that is, alas, rarely mentioned by ministers of religion in most Western, modern, Christian settings. As the contemporary philosopher, James W. Woelful, once put it:
“[I]n my own ongoing struggle to make sense of the Christian context of life- and world-interpretation, I find basic elements of that context which I simply cannot render coherent any longer, and I earnestly wonder how other persons manage to” (The Death of God: A Belated Personal Postscript).
But, despite this admission, I don’t think it’s wise to let go of this story and others like it. Why? Well, because they stand as important reminders that the mood and world-view of the religious tradition to which I and this church belongs has always-already been changing and, from time to time, massive paradigm shifts have occurred within it. Seeing in our own story of faith clear evidence that we can no longer believe as did our forebears, is not a bad thing, but a bloody good thing and it’s something which we should publically celebrate.
So, weird though it may sound to many people, although, today, I cannot any longer render coherent, and then in any straightforward fashion, celebrate the Palm Sunday story — nor for that matter the whole Easter story — I can, and do, celebrate heartily the fact that I know I cannot any longer render it coherent. Being able to see such a thing, and admit it publicly within our religious community, is an essential, and to my mind, beautiful mark of a genuinely living, liberal church.