Palm Sunday – what is that all about then?
What are the key elements?
First there are Palms – obviously. Why do we have Palms?
Were there palms in the reading which we have just heard?
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
No mention of Palms there – but there is of making a carpet of cloaks and branches – perhaps it reminds of the highway in the desert that God will make for his anointed – certainly it reminds us of the red carpet which is used for celebrities and in particular for royalty.
This cutting of branches specifically is probably a reference to the Old testament – the instructions for the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), which are prescribed in Leviticus 23:40 state:
On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.
Sukkot – the feast of the harvest also known as tabernacles was associated with Moses and the escape Exodus – it meant to the Israelites salvation, a new beginning
This is probably the feast which is referred to and commemorated in Psalm 118
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
The people in Matthew’s Gospel make this link as they sing other words from Psalm 118
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Matthew describes how cloaks were used to make a carpet for Jesus
And cloaks – this represented obeisance – it symbolised the people putting themselves under the feet of the king
The Donkey is also, perhaps surprisingly, a symbol of Kingship. Explicit reference is made to this in the prophesy of Zechariah
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
But the Donkey is also associated with Moses – a favourite point of comparison for Matthew.
So Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand. (Ex 4:20)
The word for palm in Greek (phoenix) also means red
So a carpet of palms would also translate as a red carpet
Or indeed a red sea – another link with Moses
And the people shout Hosanna – which means “salvation” – they believe that salvation is coming – just as under Moses salvation came from Pharaoh
But in fact it is only John’s Gospel which actually says palm
John’s is the most Greek of the Gospels and to the Greeks the palm was the symbol of victory –we still have that at the Cannes film festival the winning film wins the Palme D’or – the golden palm
This scene has also connotation of the roman triumph in which a successful general was greeted with a procession and people waved palms
Our bibles speak of the Triumphal Entry and Paul spoke to the Corinthians of Christ’s triumphal procession
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved (2 Cor 2:14-15)
An interesting note that the Roman word triumph is derived from a hymn to Bacchus the Roman God of wine – the god with which Jesus was often associated or even confused (the wedding at Cena, the use of wine in the eucharist, the fact that Bacchus famously made a descent and return from Hades are all a part of this conflation.
It came to be the symbol of martyrs – those who were victorious over death – so in Revelation 7:9, the white-clad multitude stand before the throne and Lamb holding palm branches.
Look at these palms – they look a little like grass
All flesh is as grass – earth to earth, ashes to ashes
These Palms are the grass that was burned and became ash for Ash Wednesday – that has grown again
The actual word in Greek is phoenix – the same as the mythical bird which is born from the ashes of its parent
To the Egyptians the palm meant immortality – the palms look forward to Easter and the promise of immortality
So these palms – which have grown from the ashes of Ash Wednesday are literally phoenixes!
Matthew’s Gospel makes the point that this marks a new beginning
Jesus cleanses the temple and receives their the blind and the lame – those who had been excluded under the law
So these palms hold all of that meaning for us
The new start that Christianity promises
The immortal triumph of Jesus over death
The promise of salvation -Hosanna
And this week we have the chance to witness to that story of salvation before the people of our parish – today at Box Hill and then on Good Friday here at Walton and then again at Box Hill for the walk of witness from 12:00 to 15:00 across Headley Heath
These days have the Shape of a Tragedy – the dramatic events of holy week – the passion story
Jesus who today was received as a king, a messiah, a man who would change the world
Ends the week with an undignified death on a cross – it looks like the end of a dream
But it is not the end –
The story of Easter – the experience of the risen Christ – first to Mary then to the Apostles and now to us
Like all drama – the more you put yourselves into it the more you will get out of it
I encourage you to mmerse yourselves in it
Live it – be the crowd shouting Hosanna today at our procession on Box Hill
Pray with Jesus and the disciples this week in our times of prayer
Be with them as they share in a special meal together and have their feet washed on Maundy Thursday
And then on Friday, be a witness to our Good Friday events
Be Peter in the courtyard – when our faith, our courage is tested
Be Pilate who does not have the courage to do the right thing
Be the Roman soldiers who execute Jesus – just obeying orders
Be Mary the mother of Jesus at the crucifixion – laying all our grief, all our frailty at the foot of the cross
Be Mary in the Garden on Easter morning and find God risen, alive and transforming our lives and making them new.
Above all be faithful witnesses to these events
And thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord – Hosanna in the Highest. Amen
Sermon given by Rev Christopher Hancock, St Andrew’s, Box Hill, Palm Sunday 2018
 This is another resonance with Dionysus / Bacchus as , according to Aristotle, ‘tragedy’ began as a form of worship at the festival of Dionysus.