Oh the Places You’ll Go: Palms to Olive Trees in Holy Week

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Palm Sunday gets re-enacted all over the place. In thousands of churches, choirs and children process down aisles toward the altar, waving palm fronds. When Jesus Christ Superstar happens on stage or screen, the crowd sings “Hosanna, Heysanna, Sanna Sanna Ho…” – and lyricist Tim Rice (check out my podcast with him!) shrewdly captured what was unfolding with the original, real Jesus when they sing “Won’t you smile at me?” then “Won’t you fight for me?” and finally “Won’t you die for me?”

Pilgrim groups, including those I take, walk down the steep hill of the Mt. of Olives, imagining Jesus bobbing along on the back of that donkey. But that walk isn’t what it used to be – and for the very reason Jesus made his way there in the first place: humans are at odds with God and with one another. Back in the day, we would start in Bethany, where Jesus would have spent Saturday night with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and walk about a mile and a half to Bethpage, at the crest of the Mt. of Olives. But no more: trying to solve Israeli-Palestinian tensions, a massive wall was erected, blocking path. To walk it now would be more than a dozen miles, long way around.

So today we begin at Bethpage, and walk on a paved road (with the occasional whizzing motorcycle or taxi zipping by!), massive Jewish cemetery on the left. Then trees and a handful of churches on the right – including the lovely teardrop-shaped “Dominus Flevit,” meaning “the Lord wept,” recalling Jesus shedding tears over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). I love the view of Jerusalem through that chapel’s window – not so different from Jesus’ view on Palm Sunday, especially as he sensed the cross as his destiny.

Close to the base of the Kidron Valley, we usually visit the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of All Nations, marking where Jesus prayed in agony after the Last Supper, and where he was arrested after Judas’s kiss (Luke 22:40) – although on Palm Sunday, Jesus went right by and entered the city, probably through the East gate, the “Golden” gate, which has for centuries been walled closed.

Jesus was clearly making a point, one no one really understood. This was the day Pontius Pilate and his legions were marching into the city from Caesarea in the west, added military security to keep the peace with tens of thousands of Jews, unhappy with the Romans, thronging into the city for Passover. Jesus came in from the east, the direction of the rising of a new day, where the promised Messiah would come from – and did so unarmed, not on a war stallion but a meager donkey. The crowds still pinned revolutionary hopes on him – not realizing his revolution was more radical than mere political power in a small country.

Such courage. He was calling the Romans out, and the religious authorities who knuckled under, living by the lie that faith should not confront the government but just get along. He wasn’t done. I love Mark 11:11: once the tumult of palm-waving and Hosannas settled down, “Jesus went to the temple. He looked around at everything and, as it was already late, went home to Bethany.” This is going to take some time…

Jesus came back the next day, Monday, same Palm Sunday walk, Bethany to Bethpage, down into and through the valley, and up into the temple precincts. Those steps remain today. Our groups walk around on them, and then sit while we reflect on Jesus climbing them and then shocking everyone by overturning the moneychangers’ tables – not to condemn religious fundraising, but to symbolize the imminent overturning of all the old, corrupt ways of access to God.

And as violent plans were being hatched to do away with him, Jesus didn’t hide out, but came back on Tuesday to teach all day long – 206 verses worth (Matthew 21-26), including more than confirmed for the political and religious authorities that he had no intentions of curtsying to them or fitting in; as Caiaphas put it, “If we let him go on thus, the whole nation will follow him” (John 11:50).

On Thursday, he returned for the Passover meal – which we’ve spoken of in other emails. Then he plunged out into the darkness to pray in Gethsemane, to bear Judas’s betraying kiss, and then to be hauled off to a dark stone prison overnight before his mock trial and execution on the ironically named Good Friday.

What a week. Of the zillions of weeks since God designed our world with the passing of time measured in such 7 day increments, this was the most momentous, the truth and hope for all of us in all of our weeks.