In modern worship books, this Sunday has two names. It is both Palm Sunday and, since the reforms of the 1970s, is is also called Passion Sunday. The two names can be confusing, but they are also helpful, because in fact this particular Sunday remembers two different events in the life of Jesus.
First, it remembers his entry into Jerusalem — often called the “Triumphal Entry,” because he entered the city like a conquering hero, coming home to be celebrated and crowned as king. In Rome, the people would have built him an arch; in Jerusalem, they waved their palm branches and sang the old coronation song: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that comes in the name of the LORD.”
During this part of the service, we will bless pussy-willows and enter the nave, singing the a thousand-year-old hymn, Gloria, Laus et Honor. This hymn was written by Theodulf of Orleans, a brilliant poet and bishop who was imprisoned for treason. According to legend, the Emperor was passing by the place where Theodulf was held, heard him sing this song, and was so moved by its piety that he set the prisoner free.
The glorious, joyful entry of the King into his sacred palace, our freedom from sin and Satan — that is the theme of what Romanians call Duminica Floriilor, the Sunday of the Flowers. But as we read the lessons, the service takes on a darker tone. Isaiah speaks of the Suffering Servant, who is beaten and abused; St Paul writes to the church in Philippi, reminding them that Jesus is a exalted because he “emptied himself, and took on the form of a slave;” because he “was obedient to the point of death, even to death on the Cross.”
Then, together, we read two long and painful chapters from St. Mark’s Gospel. In them, Jesus is betrayed by his friends, given a mock trial before the religious authorities and the government, then brutally tortured, humiliated, and killed. It is a terrible story, and reading it straight through leaves us gasping for air, shaking in fear and horror.
That’s the point. The death of Jesus was not a symbolic act, carried out upon a distant, impassive, untouchable divinity. It was the brutalization of a flesh-and-blood man, carried out before his friends and family, designed to crush him and to crush those who loved him.
And the double nature of this Sunday is a sublime witness to the mystery of the Gospel. It joins the song of victory to the cry of despair, and reminds us that they cannot be separated from each other in our faith. Our souls were bought at a price; the ransom was the Son of Man.
Passion, as it is used in the church, does not mean a deep and abiding zeal, as when English speakers say, for example, “I have a passion for justice.” It comes more directly from the Latin passio, to suffer. This day might well be called Suffering Sunday.
And yet his suffering set us free; “by his stripes, we are healed.” So even while we mourn the brutality of the Cross, we can rejoice in its power. So we can treasure the palms, the willow-branches, the flowers, because they are signs not just of the hopeful celebration when Jesus came to Jerusalem, but of the victory he won on Calvary.