Hope Does not Come with Hosannas: Palm Sunday in Isolation

Palm Sunday

“i don’t have a palm
to wave
my voice is hoarse
from wasted hosannas”

So begins Kaitlin Shetler’s poem “Palm Sunday,” a stunning lament for our time. In many churches, Palm Sunday begins with a procession, and the waving of palm branches, and the singing of hosannas. It’s messy and chaotic at times, with the kids and adults all together and the occasional donkey, and I’m sure each year someone gets a palm branch in the face from over-excited waving.

This year our processions are canceled and the hosannas get stuck in our throats and it’s hard to remember we belong to a greater community as we sit here, day after day in our ever-shrinking places of isolation. And while perhaps nothing feels triumphant or celebratory about the entry today, I think the lessons from the liturgy and Scripture offer us a path of observation for this strange and lonely day.

Nine years ago I spent Palm Sunday in a form of isolation myself. I gave birth to my oldest son via c-section the Saturday before, and Palm Sunday that year was lost in a haze of pain and joy, sleeplessness and ecstasy, blood and rejoicing. So too Palm Sunday takes us from triumphal entry through crucifixion, from the hosannas to the betrayal and abandonment.

Shetler’s poem continues:

“but you hand me
a branch
from the fig tree
you withered
and a coin
from the table you turned
and we sit in silence
until you say
hope does not
come with hosannas
and peace
does not come
but with
and withering
and whipping
and a lot
a lot
of waiting”

Hope isn’t necessary when there is certainty. Hope can only exist in darkness, a flame held close in each of us to share with each other, back and forth, keeping our lights fanned into flame, holding hope for the ones whose flame has gone out until they can relight it.

We sit with the betrayal and abandonment of our government who is all too willing to crucify the many in the economic interests of the few. The palms we would wave this Sunday sit in empty churches around the globe, waiting not for hosannas, but to be burned into ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday and that metaphor seems all too apt right now.

But between the triumphal entry and the crucifixion in Matthew’s gospel come some of the most dramatic scenes of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus cleanses the temple, driving out those who seek to pervert the worship of God and the service of God’s people into a for-profit institution. Jesus curses a fig tree that had no fruit in its season and turned it into a lesson in faith. He stands in the temple and preaches stories of radical inclusion in God’s kingdom and prompts the religious leaders of his day to want to arrest him because the message that the kingdom of God was open not to those who deem themselves worthy but to everyone in the streets “both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:10b) was one they deemed dangerous.

Those who view themselves as the cornerstones of our society will always react violently when they discover God chooses the rejected of society, kills fatted calves for the returning child, and it doesn’t matter what position one holds in the church or society, the Kingdom of God will be “given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43).

This Palm Sunday our palms are our hope and our determination to walk through this isolation and abandonment together. We wave them at each other through our calls, our messages, and our video chat screens as we find ways to reach out across the distance.

This Palm Sunday our palms are a renewal of our commitment to join in not with the powerful and the self-proclaimed deserving of our society but with the lost children and those out in the streets.

This Palm Sunday our palms are a renewed commitment to the greatest commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus grants them additional importance by declaring, “On these two commandmments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). And as the Hebrew scriptures are called the Tanakh for Torah (law), Nevi’im (writings), and Ketuvim (Prophets), I think it is safe to say that Jesus was saying all scripture–all of it–hangs on and must be interpreted by–the command to love God and love our neighbors.

This Palm Sunday we must sit with what a love of neighbor looks like in a society where not all can thrive. This Palm Sunday we are called to commit to the Shalom (total well-being) of the Kingdom of God and to fight to see that realized for everyone.

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