Palm Sunday breaks the monotony of the season of Lent. And what a Lenten season it has been. One for the books, with social distancing, enforced quarantine, empty churches, no, I mean EMPTY churches, toilet paper fasts, all underlaid with a gnawing sense of unease, and in many parts of our neighborhood and world, fear of disease and death. The title of a recent blog post echoed my sentiments exactly: “This is the Lentiest Lent I Ever Lented!”
And now we prepare for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, knowing that this year there will be no gatherings at the church door, no procession of palm-wavers singing their way down the center aisle, no “Hosanna in the highest!” will be heard on the streets of Jerusalem or any other city street, no sudden hinge that leads the church into Holy Week.
The skeleton crew that gathered last Sunday in our church to livestream the service talked over plan for Palm Sunday. “Maybe four of us waving palm branches could circle the camera twelve times and no one would notice all the people were missing.” What will Palm Sunday be like without our annual dramatic reading of the Passion of Christ? What will Holy Week be like without our gatherings with other churches, without foot washing, bathrobe dramas, shadows and candles, stations of the cross, without real flesh and blood people? Sometimes it seems like we’re living in an Avengers movie and a quarter of the world’s population has just disappeared.
In another sense aren’t we living what we always wished for? We have definitely experienced a break from the busyness of life, from the diversions that pulled us in a hundred directions. Things have simplified; our needs have been clarified; even as our fears have been amplified. I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but this Palm Sunday doesn’t feel like any other. It feels like we’re perched on the edge of a precipice. It feels like those few seconds when the roller coaster comes to the highest point of its ride and stops, just before it plunges over the crest of the hill.
In a way, the strange silence on our streets today reminds me of the silence of Jesus on that last day of his life. Jesus had a lot to say in a three year ministry. We read his words and teachings each week. We have pieces of his sermons, transcripts of his public protests, remembrances of the fights in which he participated. He spun stories for huge crowds; he whispered the secrets of the kingdom to his disciples. He talked to people he wasn’t supposed to talk to—untouchables, women, foreigners, sick people, sinners.
Jesus was still talking when he came to Jerusalem, even though his mouth had placed a target on his back. He taught large crowds in the Temple by day, and spoke privately with his disciples at night. Time was running out, and he wasn’t quite finished. “I have much to say to you, but you cannot bear it now,” Jesus told them. He spoke with urgency through that last supper and we even have a record of the last prayer he prayed for the disciples and the private words of agony he poured out to God on his own behalf in the garden of Gethsemane. But when the hour of darkness finally caught up with him… when he was handed over to those who sought his life, Jesus quit talking. He went utterly silent, letting his actions speak rather than his words.
This Holy Week will be like no other. For one thing, it’s going to be a lot quieter. But the story is still there. Jesus’ actions still speak as loudly as they ever have. And, who knows, maybe with the enforced separation and the buzz dialed back…with the shadow of danger and even death lurking over the whole scene, maybe we are ready to hear the story of Jesus’ last days in a way that we haven’t heard it in a long time. This year, as the days lengthen, as the drama heightens, as the crisis grows, as our anxiety squeezes us, the Son of God makes his way to the Mount of Olives, riding on the back of a donkey. The drama begins. With words. With silence. With heart-wrenching passion and action. With acts of betrayal and acts of mercy. This year, may Holy Week be a week like no other.