Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
– Mark 8-9
This Sunday is Palm Sunday, when Jesus makes what some Christians refer to as his “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey. Crowds cheered and hailed him. “Hosanna!”
So there’s Jesus, fully human and fully divine – but he couldn’t have felt all that triumphant. He knew well to distrust fickle crowds, and he probably knew that in this very crowd were the same faithful who would crucify him five days later. Not that he disdained crowds – he is always portrayed viewing them with great compassion, and acting to bless. Nor simply that he mistrusted the crowds with his earthly fate. Far more significantly, Jesus has made it clear he didn’t trust crowds to fashion his true identity and calling. What temptations – either to mirror or despise the swirling energy. We can only imagine the stirrings within his spirit amid the fray this day.
Depending on your reading, the donkey he rode was a fulfillment of scripture, a sign of peace in lieu of a warrior’s stallion, an embodiment of humility within the pageant, or a straight-up lampooning of the whole spectacle. But is any of these truly “triumphant”?
Robert Farrar Capon says the Triumphal Entry is one more vexing parable, one acted rather than spoken – from Jesus that master of vexing parables. “In resorting so often to parables, his main point was that any understanding of the kingdom his hearers could come up with would be a misunderstanding,” Capon writes.
We watch as Jesus did the “next right thing” he knew to do. There was Jerusalem and only Jerusalem for his journey home.
In our own journeys, it often doesn’t feel triumphant to come home – to self, to our past actions, to our hidden motivations, to our deepest fears, to our flawed selves, to our deepest desires. To truth. Sometimes bits of grace come through just when we are most uncomfortable. Someone places a palm frond underfoot, whether or not her sentiment will last. Someone else gives up his cloak for a cushion.
Years ago my friend tested her young marriage when she told U.S. customs that she’d brought agricultural goods back from her Italian honeymoon. Two hours of bureaucracy later, confused customs agents held aloft the dried palm frond Pamela had saved from Palm Sunday services. “This?” Her new husband shook his head. But Pamela wasn’t the sort to lie to authorities. She had to be who she was.
Not being true to her nature would have caused Pamela unbearable anxiety. For others it leads to more destructive habits. In 12-step recovery programs, the 4th step asks us to face who we are. “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It’s about as much fun as it sounds. But true recovery – in the form of spiritual connection – isn’t possible until we first come home to ourselves. In addition to the serenity prayer, the coins used to mark time in recovery often say “To Thine Own Self Be True.”
Jesus’s triumphant journey of truth has another week to go before it’ll look anything like real triumph. Before then the skies will darken and his closest friends will turn. Crowd adoration or crowd bloodlust, disciples or no disciples, Jesus resolutely will be who he was made to be, and the truth he is becoming. The truth is misunderstood, vexing – and will grow ever more vexing in the coming week.
With God, Jesus holds the course. And so must we, whether or not we understand what it means.
P.S. Find a beautiful prayer from our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous here.