As a child, I loved parades. The Christmas parade in Greensboro was probably my favorite. My sisters were too small to brave the cold winds sweeping down Summit Avenue so usually it was just dad and I, watching the floats, listening to the bands and waiting for Santa Claus. I was small enough to sit on dad’s shoulders where I had as good a view as anyone. After the parade we would head over to the new restaurant in town, a place called MacDonald’s, for a hamburger, coke and fries. Those are my most pleasant memories concerning parades.
As I got older, and learned to play the trumpet, parades actually became something I dreaded. Being a parade participant meant arriving hours before hand, standing in the cold without a coat, and then marching for miles playing the same song over and over again. It was always good to memorize the music. That way you could watch where you stepped.
I still remember my last official parade. It was September 4th, 1975, at 10:30, in Gordonsville. I participated as a member of Fort Lee’s 492nd Marching Band. The following day I began graduate school. I purposefully saved three weeks leave so my tenure from the Army did not conflict with the continuation of my academic endeavors. While everyone else in the band was playing a rousing version of Sousa’s El Capitan, I was softly accompanying with a counter melody, the Mickey Mouse Theme Song, played of course in the same key. By the end of the parade all of the band members had joined me, in three part harmony, much to disdain of our First Sergeant. But the song put smiles on the faces of all the children. After the parade, I checked my shoes, hoped in my car and never looked back.
It is one thing to observe a parade. It is something all together different to participate in one. This morning we celebrate one of the great enigmas of Christian calendar. On Palm Sunday children wave palm branches. On Palm Sunday, the choir pulls out its own version of El Capitan. And on Palm Sunday Jesus, the man of the hour seemed to be part of the band yet he was definitely whistling a different tune. Am I the only one confused by Palm Sunday? Why stop there? I am the only one confused by all the parades leading to Easter Sunday?
The parade began innocently enough, at least in the eyes of the casual bystander. Jesus finally entered Jerusalem. All of his warnings concerning the consequences of this action seem to have been ignored or forgotten. Jesus just didn’t slip into Jerusalem by the back gate. People lined the streets, spreading their cloaks along the road. A cheer went up at each corner, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” It was a day of triumph, celebration, and joy, for everyone, except Jesus. Sitting quietly on the donkey, he participates, because he must. But his heart is elsewhere. When it is over Jesus slips from the back of the animal, retreats from the crowd, finds a quiet place and weeps. He knows what we often misunderstand. To fully live one must die, and death seldom seems a viable alternative to life.
The parade continued into Jerusalem. Jesus spoke openly about resurrection and the destruction of the Temple. These were dangerous conversations that were best presented under the cover of darkness. But the parade was winding to an end and it was too late to be careful. With each new song, the opposition grew larger. With each new storm, those faithful to Jesus began to seek shelter. With each new revelation, even the disciples began to wonder what possessed their dear friend.
Eventually all parades head toward the reviewing stand. The judges and special guests sit, waiting to be impressed as participants save their best for that one special moment when all eyes were focused on them. Legs are lifted a little higher; backs are held a little straighter; and most importantly, the selected piece is played as if it was a gift offered to the gods.
The reviewing stand on Holy Week was not a set of decorated bleachers, but a designated table, adorned with each peculiar dish that celebrated Feast of the Passover. The prayers had been spoken, the food eaten, when Jesus picked up a piece of discarded bread, tore it in two and declared, “My friends, this is my body, broken for you.” The disciples, worn out by the day and drowsy from the wine consumed, realized something extraordinary was happening. Jesus was taking an recognizable tune and playing it in a new key. One minute they were celebrating the Passover and the next they were confronted with a reworking an old theme. “This is my blood, shed for you. This is a new covenant for the remission of sin.” Now the disciples were wide awake. A meal designated to celebrate the passing of the angel of death had become an appetizer announcing the presence of death in their midst. It had been a long week. It was more than they and perhaps we are capable of comprehending. Exhausted and confused the disciples stumbled past the reviewing stand, toward the garden where they slept and Jesus prayed the parade would end. Only Jesus knew the parade had only just begun. Friday the parade continued. It featured its only participant; it entertained the same observers. But now the chant was different.
Why would the same folks who praised Jesus on Sunday call for his death on Friday? Why do many folks who celebrate Palm Sunday have such a difficult time with Good Friday? That is both a fair question and an accurate observation. According to those who calculate such things this is what we know. On April 7th, 30 A.D., Joshua ben Joseph, a teacher from Nazareth was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem between two other men. Each of the Gospels as well as the Apostle Paul gives us an interpretation of those three hours. Each tells the story a bit differently. To further complicate matters the crucifixion was a baffling, even embarrassing event for early Christians. Until the time of Constantine, the cross was never depicted in the early art of the new faith. Friday was met with silence, both from God on the day of the event and by the followers in the days, and years and centuries that followed. Questions haunted the early church. “How can one explain such event?” “What was God’s role in this event?” Those questions still haunt and baffle many of us, yet for two thousand years Christians have stared at the cross, a cross often misunderstood, and believed nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Where is the logic in that? How can love come from death? Who was responsible for the death? Was it the Jews? The Romans? Us? God? If it was God, why would God use death to bring about life? I can’t give you a satisfactory answer. But I will suggest if you shout, “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday and exclaim, “Christ has Risen” on Easter Sunday without experiencing the silence and pain of God on Friday, you may find your faith to be little more than wishful thinking.
Palm Sunday was fool’s gold and Jesus knew it. It was a parade leading to death. What does Palm Sunday tells us about anything? Like most parades it takes take place in the daylight because we want to see where we are going.
Jesus’ parade takes us into the darkness. Jesus’ parade walks us through the chaos. Jesus’ parade can be painful because Jesus’ parade is real. His parade is where we encounter death in hopes of discovering something new.
I can’t explain Palm Sunday any better than I can explain Good Friday or Easter. To explain those events would mean that I can completely prove what happened each of those days. If faith can be proven it becomes something else. Faith is about belief, not proof. So I can only tell you what I believe happened. I believe during the Holy Week parade the band started playing a song, a beautiful song, a well known song while Jesus was quietly playing another tune. The more he played, the louder he got. The other band members, one by one, starting dropping out until finally Jesus was playing all by himself.
And then he stopped;
Until a few days later;
When the band got back together,
And played the new song,
As all God’s children smiled.