Thoughts on Palm Sunday

This Sunday was Palm Sunday, and in liturgical church traditions, it’s one of the weirder ones. It’s heavy with emotion, full of the ups and downs of a nonsensical, wild faith.

We start outside the church building, singing an ancient hymn and waving branches around like our ancient stories tell us the people of Jerusalem did. The whole congregation stood out in a city park–this morning being the first warm morning in God knows how long, here in Chicago. The air was humid and smelled like rain, but the wind was hot to us and dusty.

palmbranch2Palm Sunday in a city park is a curious thing. It’s not like country congregations where the congregation processes around the church yard, on their own property, singing their own songs still on their own space, to their own weathered graves. There’s no smell of rich, mulchy dirt, or open sky and quiet wind.

For us, the procession is in this scrubby, city baseball field, the office windows of a squat public elementary staring at us through a chain-link fence. The grass is brown and hasn’t recovered from the winter, yet, but there’s plenty of mud, dry and caked up, all over everything.

The elementary school doesn’t let the children play in this lot anymore–it’s too hard to monitor such a large and open space–and so it sits disused most of the year. People walk their dogs through it. The occasional baseball game fills it up with people who don’t usually leave their town homes.  In the summer, the high schoolers wander through the field, fighting. They pretend to be boxers, egging each other on so that they can spill a little bit of their pent up rage. Airplanes and helicopters coast over the moment of open sky and hazy clouds hang low around it.

We do our Palm Sunday liturgy there, in that park, and cross the city street, waving palms and singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor, to thee, Redeemer, King. To whom the lips of children make sweet Hosanna’s ring…”

Everyone is dressed as if we are inside the church: the clergy, acolytes, and thurifer in their robes, the congregation waving palms around. It’s really a very strange sight.

You don’t realize how strange it is, how weird it must look, until it’s happening outside of the church building, until you’re aware that other people might be watching you.

In the city church, I feel like Palm Sunday is an experience of exposure: suddenly the ancient rituals we have are out in some city park for the whole world to see.

Our story as Christians–as those who praised a man and then killed him a week later–it’s all out for the world to see, and it’s all out for the world to judge. Exposed to dusty, dirty city wind, a hundred windows of houses and apartments looking out at us in the park…quietly wondering: Do they mean what they say? Why do they do what they do? Do they know what it is? Are they willing to truly live the life they claim they do?

It’s ironic that tradition chooses Palm Sunday for us to be exposed in this way. This is the Sunday of bait-and-switch, of magnification and then hatred. It purposefully reminds us of how hypocritical we, people of faith, can be–how easily we can turn our commandments from God into things that serve our own needs and establish our own power. How quickly fear can take over.

The Sunday we choose to do our liturgy outside the church is the Sunday that exists to remind us how dangerous our religious practices can be. We are reminded to keep an account of who we are to others, and what we show to others is perhaps the least desirable part of our story.

I hope that Palm Sunday can keep us accountable to the demands our faith makes on us: to keep awake and not allow it to become stifled and foreign to others, outside, watching us wave palms in a city park. We are exposed on Palm Sunday so that we understand the inherent foreignness of our tradition to our own power, and we relive this story again and again so we are reminded to keep it in perspective–while we stand out in a city park looking ridiculous, dressed in robes and singing songs and doing church in a place that isn’t a church–ever-reminded to stay awake.

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