When we read the biblical account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-13), we see that people are so happy to see him that they wave palms to display their delight. Palms have been used since ancient times in triumphal processions. (Leviticus 23:40; I Maccabees 13:37)
This entry into Jerusalem seems to be a joyful occasion. However, something strange happens. Not long after, we notice a rather sudden shift in the relationship of the people toward Jesus from joy to abandonment. The joy turned into hostility. What happened?
Two important themes in the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday are abandonment and hope. First of all, abandonment. There are several instances of it, but the one that seems to stand out is the betrayal by Judas. How sad to see one of your close friends turn you in for financial gain. We should ask ourselves, “How many times have I betrayed Jesus by not living up to my moral principles?”
Then there is the denial by Peter. Peter was in the courtyard while Jesus’ trial was being held. Someone recognized him as being with Jesus. He was asked if he knew Jesus. This is something he vigorously denied more than once. How sad to see another of your friends deny any knowledge of you for the sake of expediency. Undoubtedly, our self question should be, “How many times have I denied to be a disciple of Jesus because the moment seemed to have required it? What have I gained and what have I lost in terms of my relationship with Jesus?”
Secondly, in spite of these examples of abandonment, there are some obvious examples of hope. For instance, there were two thieves crucified with Jesus. While one was berating Jesus, the other one, with the grace of immediate belief, told him ”…Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “…Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43) Wow! How about that? Some say that he “stole” heaven.
And we also have the example of the centurion standing at the foot of the cross. When Jesus died, creation reacted. Things began to happen. When the centurion saw this, he said “Truly, this man was God’s Son.” (Matthew 27: 54) In the cases of the thief and the centurion we see a shift in behavior in their relationship with Jesus.
In our current situation, the palms that we receive on Palm Sunday can be reminders of the Gospel reading. We recall the time(s) that we have abandoned Jesus because of our sinfulness. We know also that because of the resurrection and our Baptism we are able to have hope in overcoming that sinfulness. And it is that hope that makes possible a shift in the relationship with Jesus. Simply put, the palms are able to help us in the shift itself.