Reflection: The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the Name of Our Crucified Lord. Amen.
On Palm Sunday, as we began our journey to Jerusalem, we sang the great Palm Sunday hymn, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” as we processed around the Cathedral waving our palm branches. During that service, the palm branch was very much in evidence. Had we been in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, the vast majority of people would not have been waving palm branches; instead they would have been waving an olive branch, what Matthew and Mark described in their gospels as ‘leafy branches.’ It is only in John’s Gospel that the palm branch is mentioned. Matthew and Mark mention the olive/leafy branch and Luke does not mention any foliage being waved.
I believe what happens this noon at the stone quarry pit of Calvary/Golgotha shows and represents the political conflict coming out of Palm Sunday. In many ways what we are remembering this afternoon in this Three Hour Service could really be called: the olive branch versus the palm branch.
In Roman Palestine the palm branch represented the emperor and the imperial government of Rome. After all, on Hasmonean coins, on one side is the face of the emperor and on the other side of the coin is the palm branch. The palm branch was the symbol of imperial government, power, glory, and violence. It represented the King, Caesar, and his representative, Pilate. And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, John chose the palm branch to represent that type of majesterium.
Quite in contrast to John is Matthew and Mark who sees Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem in a radically different way. The people in those two Gospels were waving olive branches, the symbol of peace, God’s promise to Noah after the flood when the bird returns carrying a twig. This “king” Marcus Borg argues “riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war horses or bows. Commending peace to the nations, Jesus will be a king of peace.” The symbol of that rule of peace is the olive branch.
As we have moved through the divine drama this Holy Week, event after event has demonstrated the tension between the olive branch and the palm branch, the tension between a donkey and a chariot, the tension between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar. Today this confrontation literally comes to a head at this hour when Jesus is brought to the governor’s headquarters, called the praetorium in Greek, to be judged and sentenced.
And immediately we confront in John’s Gospel another tension between Caesar’s majesterium and Jesus’ Kingdom of God. “And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head.” But kings and queens in today’s world wear crowns of gold, silver, and other precious metals, set with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and other precious stones. But the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, our King, wears a crown of thorns, a crown that pierces the skin, a crown that causes blood to flow.
In Jerusalem at the First Station of the Cross where Jesus is judged is a Franciscan Chapel and in that chapel, in the sanctuary dome, is an incredible mosaic of the crown of thorns, a crown of thorns with droplets of blood falling from the thorns. There in that chapel, and here in this great Cathedral, we have to confront everything that gives us self-importance, our gold and silver crowns, our diamonds, emeralds, and rubies; everything we hold so dear—our power, wealth, security, titles, and authority. In that chapel on the Via Dolorosa we are reminded that Jesus wore a crown of thorns, a symbol that turns upside down everything that gives us meaning in our life: our authority, prestige, and our own self-importance.
In the first reading of the Gospel for today, Pilate brings Jesus out to the soldiers, chief priests, and the police, and it is they who shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Here we have yet another example of what we are calling today “leafy branches versus palm branches.” On Palm Sunday the crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem was certainly a totally different crowd from the Good Friday crowd who shouted “Crucify him.” The Palm Sunday crowd with Jesus was a “peasant’s procession.” Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth and his followers came from the peasant class. Those peasants would never have been allowed entrance into the governor’s headquarters on Good Friday.
Instead in the governor’s headquarters were the soldiers, the chief priests, and the police. It is those “government officials” who made up the majesterium.
And in Jesus’ trial we have the tension between the righteousness of the Kingdom of God, the crown of thorns, and the Kingdom of Caesar, the crown made up of gold and silver. Jesus, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, is being tried by the imperial power.
One final point, Marcus Borg has argued that “Crucifixion was a form of Roman imperial terrorism.” This form of terrorism was reserved for those who were “runaway slaves or rebel insurgents who subverted Roman law and order and thereby disturbed the Roman peace.” And to deride Jesus even more, Pilate mockingly said to the same Good Friday imperial crowd, “Here is your King.”
While Pilate said those words in total derision, the truth is Jesus is our King, our King who calls us to live a radical lifestyle in opposition to terrorism, a king who pleads with us to banish war, a king who calls us to righteousness, a king who challenges us to wave an olive branch.
Yet during this first hour on this Good Friday we still hear two voices echoing in the background of our minds: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Crucify him! Crucify him!