The Liturgy of the Palms (Palm Sunday) (Year C)

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Luke 19:28-40

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem echoed the ancient rituals of the King who battled evil powers and brought victory to the rejoicing people.

The Revised Common Lectionary splits the traditional Palm Sunday in two. For the same Sunday, we have two liturgies offered, one focusing on the Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the other focusing on the entire Passion narrative. These are called respectively the Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion.

I am going to vary from previous years by giving only the Palm Sunday readings here and saving the full Passion narrative for a Good Friday set of readings. This is closer to the practices of the churches I am familiar with these days. The Good Friday readings will be in the next issue of the Common Good Network.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

The Psalm reading for the Liturgy of the Palms is a portion of the long Psalm 118. The entire psalm, which contains a sequence of liturgical actions and scenes, will be discussed here in order to retain the full liturgical sweep that forms the background to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

The psalm opens (verses 1-4) with a master of ceremonies who gives thanks to the Lord and calls for antiphonal responses from three other parties: (1) Israel, who is addressed in the singular (conspicuous in Hebrew) and could be a royal figure representing the personified Israel; (2) the house of Aaron, addressed in the plural and consisting of the massed priests in attendance; and (3) “those who fear the Lord” ( yire’ Yahweh ), also a group, and consisting at least of the non-priestly worshippers. (The Greek translation, second-century BCE give or take a hundred years, as well as other later interpreters, made the first party “the house of Israel” rather than simply the singular person “Israel.” This first group was then understood as Israelite non-priestly people and the “fearers of the Lord” became non-Israelites, that is, proselytes or sojourners.)

The second part of the psalm (verses 5-9) is a speech by a person who has been delivered by the Lord from distress. Actually, most of the speech is an expression of confidence in the Lord, insisting that if the Lord is on one’s side one is sure to triumph. Such trust cannot be placed in humans or in princely rulers.

The third part of the psalm (verses 10-14) is a dramatic outbreak in which the speaker reverts to the time when he was beset by enemies and was fighting violently to survive. The action portrayed is repetitive and ritualistic. Three times – one supposes in a very excited and desperate voice – the word “surrounded” is hammered out to describe the assault of the enemies. Three times the desperate but triumphant cry follows, “in the name of the Lord I cut them off.” (All quotes are from the NRSV.) One can imagine a whirling of arms, and in verse 12 perhaps a torch of thorn bush, included in the speaker’s actions. The danger was almost fatal, “but the Lord helped me,” and the speaker was saved.

In the fourth part (verses 15-18), the speaker reports some of the significance of his escape from death. He declares that there are “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous.” Three times, again, the victory announcement is repeated: “the right hand of the Lord” does valiantly. The whole dangerous situation is described by the speaker as one in which the Lord has “punished” him but did not give him up to death. The speaker has suffered severely, and this punishment is probably related to atoning for sins.

The rest of the psalm (the part making up the reading for the day) is a liturgy of triumphal entry into the temple by the (royal) figure who has been delivered from death. The geography is important here. The entry into the temple is from the east where the Mount of Olives rises above the temple. The way from the Mount of Olives to the temple descends into the deep Kidron Valley (where Gethsemane is) and up the temple mountain to the east gate into the temple. The temple gate leads inward directly toward the large altar in front of the temple building. Thus, “open to me the gates of righteousness” (verse 19) is the summons by the victorious king to those within the holy place. They respond, “this is the gate of the Lord…”

The thanksgiving spoken by the delivered one, presumably inside the gates, is given in verses 21-24. It includes a declaration of the great divine reversal, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” This was said, perhaps, while standing near the cornerstone of the gate. Once inside the gate, there is a summons to worship, opened by the declaration that “this is the day the Lord has made…”

In response to this thanksgiving and summons, the people cry out, “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” This “save us” is the hosh‘iah na’ in Hebrew that becomes the Hosanna of the Gospels (used in the triumphal entry in Matthew, Mark, and John, but not in Luke). When the delivered One has arrived at the holy place, the people cry out this appeal for God’s help. With this cry the hopeful people receive the victorious royal figure: “Blessed in the name of the Lord is the one who comes,” and the accompanying actions include a procession up to the big altar in the inner court of the temple (verse 27). This is the point at which “branches” are mentioned, implying that they have been waved as part of the preceding liturgical actions.

The last word is the declaration by the royal figure, “You are my God, I will extol you.”

Luke 19:28-40

The Gospel reading is Luke’s version of the triumphal entry. As in the other Gospels, securing the animal on which Jesus will ride is given prominence. Bethany and Bethphage were villages on the east side of the Mount of Olives where Jesus stayed when in the Jerusalem area. To make the entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has two disciples procure a colt from one of the villages, simply by going and taking it. Is there a clandestine air about the disciples’ instructions to say that, “The Lord needs it,” or is it just a friendly and trusting neighborhood?

In any case, riding this animal is a highly symbolic act. We learn the power of the symbolism from Zechariah 9:9.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion…
Lo, your king comes to you;
          triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
          on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (NRSV)

The work of this king will be to end war and establish peace:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
          and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
          and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
          and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:10)

Even further back, the first “son of David” to reign in Zion (Solomon) was placed on David’s royal mule and led to the holy spring (on the east side of Jerusalem) to be anointed as king. That anointing was followed by a great and noisy procession back up into the city (I Kings 1:38-40). Anyone familiar with the ancient local lore around Jerusalem would have known that a great king would come to David’s capital riding a donkey/mule into the city from the east, from the Mount of Olives. None of this background would have been lost on “the whole multitude of the disciples.” They were loaded with high expectations about Jesus because of “all the deeds of power that they had seen” (verse 37).

What the enthusiastic people shouted and sang was Psalm 118, which came out, in their version,

Blessed is the king
          who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
          and glory in the highest heaven!” (verse 38)

(This was a sort of combination of Psalm 118:26 and Zechariah 9:10.)

The disciples make such a clamor that good law-abiding Pharisees urge Jesus to quiet them down. At this moment, however, they can’t be quiet, says Jesus, or else the stones themselves would cry out. This is the high celebrative moment which must be fully enacted.

Unlike the great psalm, however, this is not the last note. In Jesus’ drama the cost of the intense battle for salvation is yet to come.

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