palm fronds

The Words that Shape Us: From “Hosanna” to “Crucify”

by Talitha Arnold

Palm Sunday, 2016

It was a mob scene that first Palm Sunday. People lined the road into Jerusalem, shouting, waving branches, throwing their cloaks on the ground, reaching out to touch the man on the donkey, everyone chanting “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

And it was a mob scene five days later, when some of those same people squeezed into the courtyard of the Roman garrison to shout “Crucify! Crucify!” Same man. Same crowd. Different words.

Mobs are like that. They can turn on a dime. One day everyone is shouting happy Hosannas and life is great.\ The next thing you know, it’s all cries of “Crucify” and death.

Throughout Lent, we’ve explored “the words that shape us” as Christians. The story of the first Palm Sunday and the week that followed remind us of the power of such. words. So does our own time, 2000 years later. “Christian values,” “Biblical principles,” and the name of Jesus are much in our news these days. Not because it’s Holy Week, but because we’re in a presidential campaign season, and there are a lot religious words bandied about. Indeed, in some political circles, candidates must claim their Christian credentials in order to garner votes.

At the same time and sometimes in the same breath, there’s talk of banning Muslims and building walls, labeling immigrants as rapists and murderers, and encouraging violence against one’s opponents. As a Christian minister, I find such hatred and fear-mongering the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ both preached and practiced. As we who are Christian head into our holiest of weeks, it might be good to remember what he actually did say and do.

For Jesus, his teachings of “turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies” weren’t just feel-good phrases. They shaped his life. Throughout that life, Jesus showed the power of love to overcome fear. He reached out with love to embrace people who were afflicted with leprosy or mental illness who were banished from the community. He crossed the divisions of race and religion, telling stories of Good Samaritans, welcoming people of all backgrounds, and eating with “outcasts.” He respected women, honoring those who wished to learn (Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus) and those called to lead (Mary Magdalene–”Apostle to the Apostles”).

Jesus also knew first-hand how hard it is to choose the way of love and non-violence. There were times when his own anger or exhaustion got the best of him. He got cranky with a woman who wanted him to heal her daughter. The day after Palm Sunday, he zapped a fig tree and overturned the tables of the money-changers. The Gospels record how often Jesus went to a “lonely place” to pray. I think it shows how much he needed, in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., God’s “strength to love.” We do, too.

Overcoming fear with love “is not for the timid or weak,” affirmed Cesar Chavez, leader of the Farmworker Movement. “Non-violence is hard work.” Jesus knew that, all the way to the cross. At the Last Supper, he knelt to wash the feet of all the disciples, including Peter who would deny him and Judas who betrayed him. Later when the religious leaders came with their band of thugs to arrest him, one of the disciples cut off the ear of a servant named Malchus. “No more of this!” Jesus commanded. “Put down your sword.” Then he healed the man who helped arrest him.

At any point that night or through the next day, Jesus could have called his followers to arms. He didn’t. Moreover, as clearly demonstrated in the fate of a fig tree, Jesus had the power to zap Pilate, Herod, and all the legions of Rome if he’d chosen. He didn’t. Instead he chose the power of love. “Father, forgive.”

The journey of this Holy Week that begins with tomorrow with Palm Sunday reminds all who would claim the name of “Christian” that to follow the way of Jesus Christ is to follow the way of the one who chose the way of life and love. To accept the call of “Christian” is trust the power of love to overcome fear and hatred. And it is to commit one’s self and one’s life to that hard work of love.

The story of Holy Week that we begin tomorrow shows us–and our world–how to express real Christian values. Saying “no” to violence and hatred is a good place to start.

It’s where he did.