When Egeria travelled in the Levant (381-384) she recorded many things on her travels one of which was a description of the events in Jerusalem in Holy Week. There were many services, gatherings, walking to various places and on Sunday afternoon having gathered at the Mount of Olives for hymns, antiphons, and Bible readings there comes a time when the bishop rises to go into Jerusalem.
“All the people go before him with psalms and antiphons, all the time repeating, ‘Blessed is he that [comes] in the name of the Lord’. The babies and the ones too young to walk are carried on their parents’ shoulders. Everyone is carrying branches, either palm or olive, and they accompany the bishop in the very way the people did when once they went down the hill with the Lord. They go on foot all the way down the Mount to the city, and all through the city to the Anastasis but they have to go pretty gently on account of the older women and man among them who might get tired. So it is already late when they reach the Anastasis; but even though it is late they hold Lucernare when they get there, then have a prayer At the Cross, and the people are dismissed.” (Egeria’s Travels, Tr. John Wilkinson, (1971, 2015), Oxbow Books, p.152.)
To the Christians of the 4th Century the branches were re-enactments and reminders of the historical event of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem having just raised Lazarus from dead. It is the same for us in the 21st Century who see the palm has symbols of life (water in the desert) and victory which speak truthfully precisely because five days later Jesus once acclaimed and cheered was later condemned and jeered. Palm Sunday is part of the story of the cross and the paradox of Christianity – that in death, there is life.
One can imagine the hype and excitement of Lazarus shuffling out of the tomb. That sign would produce among people oppressed by a foreign army and a foreign (Roman) empire and who longed for a return to the ‘golden age’ of King David and the Messiah that came from him and longing for freedom – and for action. Finally. God is finally bringing about his promise. For the crowd waving palm branches at Jesus they are signalling that they want life and liberation – which is most likely powerful action to get rid of the oppressor.
Same branches – same symbol – different messages. Who controls the message? That is the question of the last few decades! We can’t fact check everything. All communication declares itself truth and relies on trust to be heard. Why are those who cried for Jesus’ crucifixion wrong if we assume they viewed him as a failed liberator? Christians would say that the crowd misread the situation both with Lazarus (not so easy) and with Jesus’ entry (consider his mode of transport – a donkey – and whom he did challenge – kick out – those selling in the temple courtyard). Their cries about him were true but not as they expected.
This is one of the biggest hurdles in reaching non Christians – to break through their expectations of God – and present them with Jesus. For Christians it simply means sticking to the truth – to God’s Word – say what it says and don’t say what it doesn’t say – and the mysterious paradoxical wonder is that Jesus rides in on those words and continues to draw people to himself.