There’s something a little unsettling about Palm Sunday. It appears that the same people who welcome Jesus as a victorious king at the beginning of the week are screaming for his death by its end. The liturgy reminds us of this incongruity by putting Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday together (at least in the Ordinary Form; in the Extraordinary Form last Sunday was Passion Sunday). I’ve heard a number of possible explanations for this apparent change in the crowd. I read once (I’m sorry to say I can no longer remember where) that the supporters greeting Jesus with palm fronds and hosannas on Sunday may not have been the same angry mob demanding his crucifixion on Friday. Maybe they were all different people.
There may be some small element of truth to this theory, but I can’t help but think that there must have been a very significant overlap between the two groups. How likely is it that the entire mass of people who were so enthusiastic just a few days earlier would simply stay away from their new king’s trial? I find the more traditional explanation more likely, that a large portion, at least, of the first crowd had soured on the whole Jesus phenomenon over the intervening days.
Which brings us back to the original question: why did so many change their minds? The likeliest thing seems to be that when they found out that Jesus had no intention of being the sort of savior they were looking for, disappointment and disillusionment turned to disgust and hatred. They thought that Jesus was a conquering hero who would free them from the oppression of the foreign Romans; when they discovered that his real aim was to free them from sin, well, no thanks, Jesus.
This explanation rings true, because it fits with human nature: I’ve experienced it in myself, I’ve seen it in other people. The fact is that, very often, we don’t really want to be saved from our sin. We would be happy to have Jesus take on our external hardships for us, to battle “Caesar” out there on our behalf, but we’re all too comfortable with the inner tyrants who hold us bound in a way no emperor can do. How often have we welcomed Christ as our savior, only to turn away when the freedom he offers comes with the admonition “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11)? But Christ still rides into Jerusalem, receiving acclaim from a crowd that he knows will soon turn against him. He does it because he loves them . . . just as he loves every one of us.
Featured image (top of page): “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem” Hippolyte Flandrin, (1842-1848)