Palm Sunday, called Domingo de Ramos in Spanish, dawned bright and almost clear last week, with just enough wispy clouds to make it the perfect morning for taking pictures. I had my camera in hand as I walked down to our church, passing the Iglesia de la Soledad on my way. I love the banners that the Catholic church hangs from the balcony on special occasions, with messages that, most of the time, are doctrinally correct. This banner says, “I give my life for you,” and it will be on display throughout the duration of Holy Week here in Huaraz.
I also love Palm Sunday because of all of the beautiful pomp and circumstance in our town. Just take a look at the intricately-woven reeds that are sold as palm branches in the church plaza.
A few years ago I bought a couple of these for the boys, spending a total of about $3.00 for someone’s delicate handiwork.
(Notice the young man in the background weaving the reeds.)
The boys waved their palm branches and shouted a few “Hosannas” and then quickly reverted to what most boys do when they have any sort of long and narrow object in their hands; they staged a sword fight.
Domingo de Ramos begins Holy Week with people waving these palm branches as they parade a statue of Jesus through the town. One year I watched the parade, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the inanimate Jesus was perched upon the back of a real donkey! I noticed one of our neighbors in this crowd, wearing a dark suit and accompanying the statue… more about that later.
This annual procession carries their Jesus through the entire town and back to the Iglesia de la Soledad, where another group of the faithful awaits his arrival. As I walked past the church last Sunday morning, I noticed a large group of policemen on the steps, presumably there to keep order when the procession arrived.
There were savvy citizens taking advantage of the carnival-like atmosphere to sell cheap children’s toys, popcorn and ice cream to the crowd. One lady was waiting for Jesus with a cornstalk instead of a fancy, plaited palm branch.
And so, on a beautiful Sunday morning last week, I watched the solemnity of the procession, juxtaposed by the raucous commercial activity and the militance of the police presence, and I was struck by how similar this scene must be to the actual triumphal entry, when Jesus rode the colt into Jerusalem. And then I thought, “What a beautiful day to get it all so wrong!”
The Jews of Jesus’ day crowded the streets with their palm branches shouting “Hosanna, hosanna,” which means “Save us, rescue us!” They were indeed rejoicing to see the real live Jesus on a real live donkey, riding into their city, just one week before he would save and rescue them. But they thought that Jesus was there to rescue them from the crushing weight of the Roman Empire. (I guess my boys were pretty close when they used their palm branches for swords!) When that didn’t happen on their Palm Sunday, these same people, less than a week later, were calling for his death. What a beautiful day to get it all so wrong!
On the Peruvian’s Palm Sunday, their Jesus was just a plaster statue, although he did have a real live donkey. The people following him were waving their braided palm branches and shouting “Hosanna, hosanna.” Some of them, like the neighbor I mentioned earlier, were thanking God for miracles granted. Apparently our neighbor used to be quite an alcoholic, and he pledged lifelong faithfulness when God delivered him from that vice. (Or so goes the story passed along through the other neighbors.) I don’t doubt that God worked in this man’s life; I just think it’s a bit sad that the best way he can find to thank God is to make a yearly trek through town with an inanimate object. Others in the crowd were hoping to gain God’s favor by participating in this Catholic tradition, and still others, I’m sure, were just there for the fun and the food. What a beautiful day to get it all so wrong!
On the “other side of the street,” however, the evangelical (protestant) churches do their best to avoid Palm Sunday, I guess because it seems “too Catholic” for them. So our kids did not hear anything about the triumphal entry in their Sunday School classes, and the message in the main church service was nice, but not at all Easter-related. What a beautiful day to get it all so wrong!
Tradition can be a beautiful thing, but not if it takes the place of a relationship. And even the best of relationships can benefit from a good dose of tradition every now and then – from the excitement and anticipation of knowing that a certain beautiful event is just around the corner. So just as the Jews finish their Passover Seder with , “Next year in Jerusalem,” I’m going to say, “Next year on Palm Sunday… let’s have a beautiful day and get things right!”