This morning I googled icons of Jesus’ triumphal entry. The one posted above, by the Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Antonyuk, stood out to me not just because of it’s unique visually—the proportions of Jesus’ head and the shape donkey’s body stand out the most—but because it’s lonely. Palm Sunday 2020 will be a lonely one. We won’t be gathered together. We’ll be at home, maybe with family, maybe live-streaming a service, but not together as we’re accustom.
There’s something odd yet fitting about celebrating Palm Sunday during a pandemic. I’ve often told my students that the Gospels are probably easier to embrace for those who see the world through the lens of disorder and brokenness. If life’s going well for you it’s hard to resonate with the desperation of narratives that climax with execution by crucifixion.
But then a pandemic breaks us. Even the most comfortable are uncomfortable. And those who already were suffering, sadly, are even more vulnerable to the harshness of our world. It’s one of those rare moments where we’re all sharing in some form of struggle even if it’s not being felt evenly. But it’s being felt and that opens us up to stories we’ve heard already but needed to hear in a new way.
Palm Sunday does exalt Jesus as King but it also highlights the reality of shattered expectations. Jesus isn’t that kind of King. Jesus will not experience that kind of enthronement. The paradox of the Gospels is that Jesus is the kind of King who rides a humble donkey, whose enthronement is a Roman cross, who in the Johannine tradition has a Kingdom that’s not from this earth. His disciples don’t understand this. His adoring crowds don’t know this. In just a few days their worldview will be shattered.
Many may be asking ‘why?’ this pandemic is happening just as Jesus and his disciples will ask (in a few days, liturgically) how Palm Sunday could morph into ‘Good’ Friday. As regards the pandemic, we can talk about humanity’s responsibility another time because in this situation there’s a lot of it. But for a moment I want to think about divine responsibility as relates to expectations. One reason I enjoy teaching the Book of Job, and why it’s the last part of the Hebrew Bible I cover when I do, is because it undermines all the theodicy of Books like Proverbs and Deuteronomy. It’s (IMO) an absurdist response to the idea we could comprehend the divine mind even if the divine plan was explained to us. I don’t like this for theological reasons, per se (I’m not linking with many Fundamentalists who rebuke us for questioning God), but for literary, human reasons: I don’t think we can understand our suffering and our world in ways that satisfy us when we’re experiencing that suffering. All we can understand is we had expectations about how the world should work, or God should act, and those expectations were wrong.
Like Job, we feel alone when this happens. We feel like we’re the only one being targeted by God. Did Jesus feel this during the Holy Week we’re about to remember? It seems like he did. He asks, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He asks this less than a week after he rides into Jerusalem as the King, as the Messiah.
But Job isn’t alone. He represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And Jesus wasn’t alone, he represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And now, during this pandemic, we’re not alone. We may feel alone, or at least lonely, but this is a microcosm of the human condition. Our expectations are high, they’re broken, and we’re left wondering why things are the way they are. This pandemic has magnified this reality. And all we can do is let it color this particular Palm Sunday for us so that we read these stories afresh.
Holy Week exists, liturgically, to be experienced. Usually, this is sacramental in nature. Now, it’s in the midst of a world shattering pandemic. We have no choice but to go through this Palm Sunday alone, like Job, and like Jesus, and allow it to speak to us about our expectations. But I don’t say this is to encourage reflecting on Palm Sunday isolating from the rest of Holy Week. For today, yes, let it sink into your soul a bit. But this isn’t the last day. We have six more to go.