Palm Sunday, celebrated this past weekend by the world’s Christians, is customarily a day of joy. Directed toward the event known as “The Triumphal Entry,” Palm Sunday marks the day that Jesus came riding into Jerusalem, just days before his death, welcomed by the jubilant masses. People took off their coats and threw them on the ground, an act of homage to a conquering king. They cut down palm branches, waved them wildly in ovation, and sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Thus, we have the traditional name for this Sunday one week before Easter, and the custom of distributing palm branches to the weekend’s worshippers.
But not all Palm Sunday commemorations are this tame. In parts of Europe – particularly in the countries of Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania – Christians bring their branches to church on Palm Sunday as well, though they do not carry palms. Securing a palm branch in the early spring of Eastern Europe is a bit of challenge, so the Christians there have improvised. They bring spruce branches instead, and rather than waving them in the air, they use them to flog each other. The old tradition, apparently Lithuanian, goes like this: After church on Palm Sunday, the worshippers go home and lash those who didn’t attend church with the spruce branches. Or in some Polish variations, the children are awakened from their beds on Palm Sunday morning by their parents beating them (gently, I am told) with the spruce branches.
Like so many of Christian practices, this tradition has its roots in ancient paganism. Before Christianity came to Europe the local tribes observed a springtime ritual where they would thrash each other with evergreen trees. It was a way of casting off the winter, welcoming the spring, beating off cold, evil spirits, and I imagine it got one’s sluggish blood pumping. Later, when Christianity displaced paganism, the evergreen practice was adapted. The branches were retained, blessed by the church to chase the devil away, and used on Palm Sunday to reflect the mingled and cluttered emotions of the day. For while Palm Sunday is a day of joyous celebration – Christ has come! – it is also a day of suffering, marking the beginning of Jesus’ Passion.
The gospel accounts of the first Palm Sunday capture the contradictions so well. Yes, there were those who cheered as Jesus descended into the city, but there were those who opposed the celebration; cold, wet, storm clouds who wanted to rain on the entire parade. Yes, the disciples were ecstatic as the day they longed for had come, but they were desperately clueless to everything that was happening. Certainly Jesus felt the conflict. He rode into town enjoying the praises of the people, only to be kicked in the proverbial teeth by the religious leaders. He was welcomed like a hero as the day began, only to end the victory parade in bitter sorrow, weeping for the city that would soon reject him. And he knew that the voices singing “Hosanna” would within the week be eclipsed by louder voices shouting, “Crucify him.”
This is the rule, not the exception. Happiness is accompanied by hardship. With triumph comes trouble. Accomplishment’s companion is usually agony, and rarely is there success, by any definition, without suffering. The examples to this effect are abundant: A woman birthing a child, an athlete training for competition, a student working toward graduation, a single mother raising a child, a Savior riding through Jerusalem to cheers and jeers – Pain is the prerequisite path to joy, and difficulty is victory’s perpetual partner.
For whatever reason God has chosen life to be the way it is, this is the way life is: Pain and joy are life’s constant collaborators, and there seems to be no other way. Embedded within the soaring praise of waving palms, there are the necessary stinging blows of the spruce branches. Simply, the sufferings of our crucifixions are mingled with the glory of our resurrection, and Palm Sundays have a way of being followed by Easters.