The exuberant parade of palms that marks the beginning of Holy Week is, when you stop and think about it, a strange episode in the story of Christ’s Passion. For weeks, if not months, Jesus has been telling his disciples that heading towards Jerusalem means heading towards death. The leading city of Roman Palestine is a dangerous place for an itinerant preacher who challenges the religious authorities for their collaboration with Rome. Jesus intends to take that challenge to the seat of their power, the Temple itself. There he will assert his vision, claiming that the Temple is a house of prayer for all the people and should not be an instrument by which the priestly cult exercises its authority over the people they should be serving.
Jesus seems to be throwing gasoline on these dangerous fires when he commands his disciples to find him a donkey on which he can ride into Jerusalem and thus fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah who said that it would be a King of Israel who came humbly, riding a donkey. The Romans appear to have been paying attention to this bit of theatre, for only a few days later when they nailed him to the cross, they mocked him with a sign reading “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” nailed over his head.
High drama, threats of revolution, a cruel execution, and the apparent abysmal failure of the Jesus movement are just days away, yet here we are celebrating with songs and waving palms. “A very large crowd” we are told “spread their cloaks on the road”, greeting him like a king. This hardly seems to fit with the somber events to come.
We aren’t given much information about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the Biblical accounts. And so it is hard to know with any certainty what the nature of this celebratory parade was. It seems curious to me that the Romans even let it happen in the first place. Rome was extremely nervous about any public gathering in the territories that it had conquered. When people get together, they not only share their complaints but they can plot action against their oppressors.
In her marvelous examination of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich tells us that on one occasion some citizens of Bithynia, another Roman occupied territory, requested permission to form a volunteer fire brigade. The Emperor Trajan refused to let them do so saying, “if people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever purpose, they soon turn into a political club.”
Imagine then the reaction of Pontius Pilate and his advisers to large crowds gathering near the gates to the city behaving as if this wandering preacher were really a king. It makes me wonder how Jesus even made it to Thursday night without getting arrested.
Maybe there was something about this parade that made it less threatening to the Romans. A little historical speculation is involved here, but it may be that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was not perceived as threatening because it was part of a public celebration, something like the carnival parades that precede Lent in many parts of the world.
The book I mentioned a moment ago, “Collective Joy” is an examination of public festivals that are part of most cultures. Most famous perhaps is the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, but the world is full of examples. New Orleans has its Mardi Gras and even staid old Toronto has developed a Caribana festival that brings thousands of people into the streets for dancing, music making, parading and showing off elaborate costumes.
Such events may seem like exotic oddities to most of us who are products of Western culture, but such public celebrations were part of European culture until the Protestant Reformation. Communal dancing has been one of the universal features of human culture until very recently. The First Nations of North America have their traditions of potlatches and pow wows. Traditional peoples of Africa, South America, Indonesia, Asia, and Australia; in fact all corners of the world, gather together and dance, not in stately ballroom couples, but in large numbers moving and swaying together until they become one unified mass of pulsating bodies, swaying hips, swinging arms and stomping feet.
According to Ehrenreich, there is reason to believe that dancing is the beginning of religion. When the earliest people discovered that they could scare off sabre-toothed tigers by jumping and yelling as a group, they also discovered that they could experience an ecstatic sense of connection with something beyond themselves, something they came to call God. Certainly communal dance has long been a part of religious celebration and the solidifying of community.
Sitting here in our pews, this claim that dancing might be central to our experience of God may seem a little far-fetched. For Northern Protestants, church is about sitting down and listening. But that has not always been the case. The great cathedrals and even the little parish churches of Europe were, until a mere 500 years ago, all built without seating. Our sanctuary here would have been flat and open, perhaps with a labyrinth worked into the stone flooring, all to allow for dancing. Not stately minuets and waltzes, but something looking much more like a mosh pit at a rock concert. The priests presided over solemn worship services and the sacraments behind a screen at the front, and the people partied and chatted and had a good time in the sanctuary. It was Calvinists, those dour reformers from Scotland and Switzerland who decreed that we should put in pews, to prevent people from dancing.
Kind of blows your mind doesn’t it? We have been so inculcated with Presbyterian restrictions on having a good time that we can hardly imagine the church as a place of celebration and festivity. Yet it was only in the 16th and 17th centuries that church authorities drove carnivals and merry-making out from our buildings, forcing the people to develop the street festivals that still go on in Rio, New Orleans and in Toronto, as well as in countless other communities.
Back in the Middle Ages in Europe, one feature of carnivals was what scholars call rituals of inversion. This is a fancy term for activities that inverted or turned upside down the usual social roles. Women dressed as men. Men dressed as women. Beggars dressed as kings and kings dressed as beggars. Role reversal was not just a way to have fun, it was a way to mock the powerful, to give the oppressed a moment when they could feel equal or superior to those who were their bosses the rest of the year. These rituals of inversion can be found in traditional cultural carnival practices on nearly every continent, not only in Europe. There is mention of them in ancient Greek texts and most famously in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when masters waited on their slaves at table.
Perhaps in riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, evoking the prophet Isaiah, Jesus was enacting such a ritual of inversion. As the crowds danced and sang, he may have been acting out the message that he often delivered in his preaching.
Most famously in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the meek inheriting the earth and the hungry being filled. Elsewhere, he tells us that the greatest commandment is to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute you. The prodigal son is welcomed home; the Samaritan rescues the battered Jew. Again and again Jesus reverses our expectations, turning things on their head. What could be a better example of that than to have a conquering king arrive amidst a crowd of people waving not swords but these floppy leaves that littered the streets. Kings are not humble. Kings ride mighty stallions not donkeys.
Rituals of inversion can be satires of the powerful, ways of letting off steam. Often carnivals were just that. At the end of the festivities, people returned to their usual roles. Masters were served by their slaves for another 50 weeks. If Palm Sunday were all that Jesus left us, that might well be where we would have ended up. But the ritual of inversion that begins this week is only a small prelude to a far more profound inversion that comes at its end. Though the status quo seems to reassert itself on Good Friday and the oppressors crucify the one who challenged and even mocked their authority, Easter Sunday reverses our expectations in a way that changes everything. Not only shall the last be first and the mighty be brought low but death itself will be defeated.
Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.