Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118.26-27)
The Right People
Today’s post begins with a confession. For years, I’ve regarded Palm Sunday with a degree of ambivalence and skepticism. I know why this is, and I’ve accepted it as a by-product of knowledge that can’t be erased. Still, when I revisit the Triumphal Entry, the hosannas ring hollow and the praise clangs with insincerity. I see a crowd caught up by excitement, yelling and chanting mindlessly, throwing their coats down to carpet Christ’s passage and waving palm boughs with wild abandon—just to take part in the scene. To use a crude analogy, they remind me of red-carpet fans: frenzied people eager to fawn from the sidelines one day and no less eager to hiss from the balcony the next. If I could only free my mind from recognizing familiar faces at Friday’s trial and execution. If I could only block voices shouting “Hosanna!” today from filtering through the cries for crucifixion five days hence.
This year, I’m struck by the conviction I’m focusing on the wrong people. In part, it’s because I overlooked John’s comment that connects the raising of Lazarus a few days earlier and Palm Sunday’s turn-out: “Many people, because they heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him.” (John 12.18) Aha! Many have come because they already believe what the world will learn next Sunday: Jesus is The Christ, the Sovereign Lord Whose compassion and power defy death and decay. I flash forward to scan the belligerent mob in Pilate’s court and along the Via Dolorosa. While I remember many of them, there are just as many, possibly more, from Sunday’s crowd I don’t see. I don't reencounter the sincere followers until Calvary, where they stand together, holding fast to their faith in the face of such horror. I notice someone nod toward Lazarus, living proof of Christ’s resurrection power. I catch snippets of disciples recalling Jesus said He would be killed, but would rise to new life. An occasional breeze carries a softly murmured “Hosanna!”—“Save us!”—spoken as prayer more than praise. And now I’m back at the Jerusalem gate, in the company of faithful believers, rejoicing with them, waving my palms, and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” I’m seeing the right people, and Palm Sunday never looked or felt more alive with joy and hope.
While hindsight obscured my view of the many faithful in Palm Sunday’s throng, their praise alerts me to their prescient awareness of what's occurring. The Gospels offer minor variances in the syntax, yet with the exception of Luke, they center on three praises: “Hosanna,” a praise that denotes Christ’s singularity as their Savior; “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord,” which ascribes divine authority to Him; and “Blessed is the King of Israel,” declaring Jesus as the Promised One, the Messiah. These are not ad hoc approbations invented on the spot. They’re either lifted directly from Messianic prophecies or definitively referential to them. Of the three, I find the second most fascinating, as its original context in Psalm 118 captures the full essence of what is happening at the moment, as well as what will happen in the coming week.
Before the psalmist confirms the Messiah’s arrival, he/she exults in resurrection and acceptance. “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done,” verse 17 reads. Next we hear a declaration of welcome: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter.” (v19-20) In verses 22 and 23, we find the prophecy Jesus refers to soon after His triumphal entry to Jerusalem: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Bolstered by assurance in God’s providence, the psalmist breaks out in praise that presages the spirit of Palm Sunday and its hosannas: “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success.” (v24-25)
All of this serves as groundwork for the climactic anthem and invitation. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” (v26-27) Therefore, “Blessed is He” is pivotal praise. It worships Christ as the Capstone established by God despite social and religious rejection. It proclaims His resurrection in advance. Acclaiming these miracles as accomplished facts hardly suggests resting on their laurels, however. The psalm pushes ahead, urging us to pass through “the gate of the Lord,” with palm boughs in hand as we join the procession to Calvary’s altar. But note: it’s a festal procession, a joyful march. The triumph we celebrate today shouldn’t dissipate as forthcoming sorrows mount. We see through the cross to new life that is born from it.
A Day of Invitation
Palm Sunday launches a movement that can’t be stopped—not by religious conspiracy, not by unjust police action, not by popular opinion, not even by death. Like any movement, its ranks not only include sincere followers, but also hypocrites, mockers, hangers-on, and Pharisees. And yes, as it’s amassed power and popularity through the centuries, corrupt minds and evil hearts have misappropriated its title to advance hatred, injustice, and prejudice. Hebrews 6.6 says “they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” Once again, if we fixate on them, we focus on the wrong people. We’re blind to how many come to meet Jesus because they truly believe He is The Christ, the Lord of Life and Victor over Death. Most importantly, not joining the procession because of its negative elements keeps us from reaching the cross of forgiveness and resurrection that waits on the other side. Palm Sunday is a day of invitation. Join our shouts of “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!” Bring your palms along as we follow our King through the gate.
It’s a mistake to permit the insincerity of some to obscure the faith of others and, worst of all, let that discourage us from joining the procession.
Yes, I know, Handel’s “Hallelujah” is traditionally an Easter song—but today I hear a clarion call that anticipates Christ’s triumph: “Join the procession!” André Rieu conducts his chorus and The Harlem Gospel Choir, accompanied by the Johann Strauss Orchestra (Radio City Music Hall, 2004).