Reenacting the sublime on Palm Sunday: Holy Week begins
By GWEN OREL
Palm Sunday is a joyous holiday: it includes palm fronds, singing, and sometimes donkeys.
The holiday commemorates the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem. This year it will be Sunday, March 25.
It’s a day that uses symbols to deepen religious observance.
But it’s also a solemn holiday, say Montclair clergy. Some of the people who cry “Hosanna” with palm fronds are the ones who cry “Crucify him” a few days later. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week for Christians.
Having the actual palms in hand is very important, Montclair clergy say.
“Holding a palm is a way of placing yourself in that crowd. It’s an invitation to put yourself on the side of the road and imagine what it must have felt like to feel this person offering you hope,” said Ann Ralosky, senior minister of First Congregational Church, 40 South Fullerton Ave.
The way in which Jesus entered Jerusalem during the week of Passover could be considered “a little counter-protest street theater. Passover is the story of the Jews’ liberation from tyranny. Pontius Pilate, the governor, was staging his own military parade into Jerusalem,” Ralosky said.
Instead of clashes of swords and military trappings, people on the sidelines waved palms at him. He rode on a donkey, a humble animal, rather than a war horse. When Ralosky holds a palm and sees her congregation doing the same, she feels hopeful and celebratory.
“It’s beautiful, like being part of any kind of group experience where people are sharing an emotion together, like singing at a concert or being at a game united by an emotion," she said. "This is more sublime and spiritual. It’s not ‘our guy scored a goal,’ but ‘We hope and pray this story of Jesus’ liberating love is actually going to win this time’."
The Rev. Campbell Singleton, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church, 12-14 Midland Ave., agreed that the reenactment is powerful. “A lot of people talk about changing the narrative, and they don’t know God’s narrative. They don’t know how God intervened in human affairs to transform people. In lifting up palms, we are the griots, the storytellers. We are telling the story so people know it. We are that fickle crowd,” Singleton said.
“We’re with the crowd. The text says the whole crowd was with Him. Right before that, Lazarus was raised from the dead. They were seeing all these signs and wonders. The palm represents the hope with the powers that be, that the great liberator has come to free us from marginalization.”
Along with palms, some churches use donkeys as part of their Palm Sunday service. “We do ‘Hosanna’ and a palm parade, and we have a donkey,” said the Rev. Melissa Hall, rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church, 581 Valley Road. It’s the fourth year St. James has had a donkey. Having a donkey means something to children.
“When you have things in your hands, like a palm or a beautiful donkey, that experience ties you to the moment more than just listening,” she said. “The Passion story [Jesus’ story of his last days on earth] is lengthy. It goes on for a while. People can zone out.”
At St. James, the congregation walks in a procession to Anderson Park, where everyone gets palms. “It takes great courage to walk through your town in front of neighbors, with the cross in front, in choir garb and the priest, and step forward and say ‘This is something I believe in,’” she said. 'It’s a little easier with a donkey in your hand.".
FATIGUING AND PROMISING
As joyous as Palm Sunday begins, it ends solemnly, Hall said. “It’s probably the most liturgically complex service we do. It starts out ‘Hooray! Here comes Jesus!’ and by the end of the service we’ve nailed Him up.”
For Singleton, Palm Sunday demonstrates “the fickle nature of the crowd. In this political
climate, nothing much has changed.”
When something terrible happens, people are in shock, then “we go right back to what we’ve been doing. The challenge to me with Palm Sunday is how do we find a movement that sustains us to a right direction, that keeps us going in that path, and not being distracted?” He’s inspired by what he’s seen the teenagers from Parkland do, he said, and what simplicity can accomplish. He intends to preach about how with teenagers during Freedom Summer gave their lives to integrate the vote.
Hall, at St. James, also connects recent events to moral conviction. The church currently has 17 T-shirts with the names of the students slain in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day at the front of the church. On the side, there are 26 T-shirts with the names of children slain in the massacre at Sandy Hook in 2012.
At many churches, the palms used on Palm Sunday are burned and used the following year for Ash Wednesday. St. James will also burn the T-shirts, Hall said.
The Rev. Marc Vicari of St. Cassian Roman Catholic Church, 187 Bellevue Ave., said that on Palm Sunday he goes through a spectrum of emotions. “We all have a place in Palm Sunday. We could be the people cheering ‘Go get ‘em.’ We could be the people in the Passion who denied Christ. We recognize that because of us, He died. I feel all of those things. It’s emotionally fatiguing,” Vicari said. “But at the same time, it’s promising, because Holy Week has begin. There is light at the end of the tunnel pointing towards Easter and the great joy it promises.”