On the next day, many people who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was
coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried,
"Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel who comes in the name of the Lord."
All four Gospels tell the story of the Lord's entry into Jerusalem. There are slight
differences, perhaps the most surprising being that only John specifically mentions palm
branches. Matthew and Mark say that the people cut branches of trees and spread them in
the way, and Luke mentions only that they spread their clothes in the way.
There is, of course, little doubt that Matthew and Mark simply took it for granted that
the reader would know they were talking about palm branches, and our traditional "Palm
Sunday" is not at risk. The image is simply one of creating a ceremonial path, the ancient
equivalent of rolling out the red carpet, or of a ticker tape parade. The ordinary
pavement was transformed, the everyday street became an aisle of celebration. It has
become a favorite image of our acceptance of the Lord's rule in our lives.
In its narrative context, the entry into Jerusalem is almost perfectly ambivalent. The
rejoicing is sincere and appropriate in one sense; in another sense it is based on a
seriously mistaken notion of the kind of kingdom the Lord was coming to establish. Jesus'
ride was explicitly patterned on a passage in Zechariah describing the entry into the city
of the victorious king, and everything about it would suggest military victory. This, as
far as many of the faithful were concerned, was the goal of history itself--the
reestablishment of the throne of David as the head of all nations and as the wellspring of
We know how the story progressed. We know that these deep-rooted nationalistic hopes were
dashed by the crucifixion, and that the resurrection brought a whole new vision out of the
disciples' despair. We know that they gained an understanding of a spiritual kingdom, at
least to the extent that the devotion of their followers could survive the disappointment
when the second coming did not happen as expected. The history of the early church is more
confused and conflicted than the New Testament accounts may suggest, but in general, the
church focused on Christianity as a way of personal belief and life rather than as a
military-political organization. The ties with Judaism were dissolved, and "Jerusalem"
became more of an image of heaven and less of earthly capital.
When we turn to the spiritual sense of the Palm Sunday story, we find that we may well
have an ambivalence in us that parallels that of the Gospel story. In very general terms,
we know from experience that after a genuine burst of enthusiasm, there is very often a
period of difficulty. In part, this may be simply the result of our taking on more than we
are really prepared to handle--when we are on top of the world, it looks as though we can
tackle anything. Then when we find out what is involved, and especially when our energies
begin to flag, the rosy world becomes all the more bleak by contrast.
In the case of Palm Sunday, though, we can be more specific. Our theology tells us that
both the palms and the clothing are images of truths. The palms are identified as "Divine
truths in ultimates," (The Apocalypse Revealed 367), and the garments as "relatively
outward truths" (Arcana Coelestia 2576.12), both of which definitions need some
"Ultimates" are those things farthest from the Divine--usually, that is, things physical.
When we have the phrase "Divine truths in ultimates," then, this means truths on the most
down-to-earth level, truths about how we drive our cars or pay our bills or treat each
other. Elsewhere, our theology is very explicit in telling us that we are incapable of
understanding pure Divine truths (Arcana Coelestia 3207.3), and this is a reminder we may
need. What we are talking about is not some perfect understanding of the Lord's will for
all people for all time; it is simply a spontaneous awareness of the implications of our
faith for us as individuals, here and now. That is all we really need, and we do ourselves
and others harm when we try to make "our" insights normative for others.
Clothes are quite different. Palm branches grow naturally, and as such are appropriate
images for spontaneous thoughts, for insights that simply "come" without being
specifically sought or even cultivated. We manufacture our garments, though, and choose
what we will wear. This makes them appropriate images for our conscious and controlled
thinking, for our own efforts to figure things out.
The imagery can profitably be pressed. We choose our clothes in part to protect ourselves
from the climate, but in considerable measure to express the way we want to be seen. We
may not be particularly style-conscious, but we do know what suits us and what does not.
We have a sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate for different occasions, and
whether we really feel like it or not, we tend stay within the broad bounds of convention.
We may not feel "dressed up" inside, but we dress up for a special occasion.
In very similar fashion, we have fairly clear standards for our conscious thought. There
are ideas we do not welcome, whether for moral or for more spiritual reasons. There are
thoughts we do not want to "entertain." Some we consciously reject, some we block our at
the threshold of consciousness, and a]some, apparently, we suppress without even realizing
that we are doing so. Every once in a while one of the latter will break through and
startle us, leaving us with a feeling that we were caught napping, caught with our guard
With all this in mind, let us try a little exercise in visualization. Let us imagine that
there is an actual roadway in our minds, a path of thought that we travel every day. It
probably has to do with getting up in the morning and going about our usual duties.
Everything about it is familiar. It may seem a little dull at times, but we are at home
Then suddenly, we have a moment of extraordinary lucidity. We see our familiar path as
exquisitely designed by the Lord's providence, just for us. The ordinary is abruptly alive
with a whole new level of meaning--the roadway is covered with palm branches. We look at
our conscious, calculated thoughts and realize how necessary and how superficial they are,
and these garments become simply part of the way the Lord is taking to enter our lives.
At the center of this experience is the figure of the Lord. What illuminates our minds is
our sudden awareness of the nature and quality of the Lord's will for us, that union of
utter knowledge about us and utter care for us. This perception of quality is vital--if we
are wrong about this, then we are wrong about everything. If we are right--and Palm Sunday
pictures a time when we are right--then everything else falls into place.
But if we are right, why is this not the end of the story? Why is there such a
disillusionment to come? Here the imagery comes to our rescue. Everything about the story
has pictured a coming into our minds, our thoughts. The full force of the message has yet
to reach our hearts. We have grasped the vision in all the beauty we can handle, but that
is not enough.
The question that must be answered is a simple one. Do we cherish that vision for its own
sake, or simply for the rewards it promises us? If the Lord "dies," if we lose all hope of
recompense, what do we do? Do we decide that we had better grab for what we can get, or
have we discovered that, in Swedenborgian terms, the only life worth living is the life of
It is a simple question, but it can be answered only through our response to the
experience of the Lord's absence. Without the Palm Sunday vision, we could not sustain
that experience. Without the vision, we would not really be vulnerable to that experience.
As we move now toward our celebration of the Lord's Supper, let us bring with us our
highest insights as to the meaning of our faith for our lives, and our conscious plans for
the day, and open the gates of our minds to our savior.