It's always been tempting for me to think of Palm Sunday as just a triumphant entry or the beginning of Holy Week. In recent years, I've also too often simplified Palm Sunday to the observation that the people thought Jesus was one kind of king, and while Jesus is certainly King, He's not the king the people thought He was. From that point of view, Palm Sunday seems like the celebration of a mistake.
There's something right in each of those, but they're only the full story together, and that's framed really well in the hymns. Palm Sunday is worth celebrating because Jesus is King, because Christ did come to save, because Jesus is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Yes, people were wrong about what kind of king Jesus would be, but we know, and we have something to learn about celebration and praise from the people who lined the path with cloaks and waved palm branches.
I've found that I understand Palm Sunday best through the two hymns which I associate with this day: "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" and "All Glory, Laud, and Honor." Here's "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna."
Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang;
Through pillared court and temple the lovely anthem rang.
To Jesus, who had blessed them close folded to his breast,
The children sang their praises, the simplest and the best!
From Olivet they followed mid an exultant crowd,
The victor palm branch waving, and chanting clear and loud.
The Lord of earth and heaven rode on in lowly state,
Nor scorned that little children should on his bidding wait.
"Hosanna in the highest!" that ancient song we sing,
For Christ is our Redeemer, the Lord of heaven our King.
O may we ever praise him with heart and life and voice,
And in his blissful presence eternally rejoice!
There are a couple of things I love about this. The first is the emphasis on children. Jesus said of children that "the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." Here is one example of what it means to be "such as these." Blessed by Christ, the children sang, they praised, and they wanted to serve Jesus. The praises they raised were simple -- but they were also the best.
That relates to the second thing I love in this hymn. In Luke, Jesus says that if the people did not cry out, the stones would do so. That's how worthy Jesus is of our praise, but notice that this praise doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, nothing here is all that complicated. The simplest praises are the best. Jesus rides into Jerusalem "in lowly state." So much of Lent is about humility, and that's really evident here.
Oh, and by the way, that simple prayer? That ancient song we sing? Hosanna is a call for divine help. It is the people asking to be saved, asking for rescue -- but it's also a cry of jubilation. This is how we come before God: praising God and asking that God save us.
Here's "All Glory, Laud, and Honor."
All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer, King,
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.
Thou art the King of Israel, thou David's royal song
Who in the Lord's name comest, the King and Blessed One.
The company of angels are praising thee on high
And we with all creation in chorus make reply.
The people of the Hebrews with palms before thee went;
Our prayer and praise and anthems before thee we present.
To thee before thy passion, they sang their hymns of praise;
To thee, now high exalted, our melody we raise.
Thou didst accept their praises; accept the prayers we bring,
Who in all good delightest, thou good and gracious King.
A lot of the message is the same here, but I really love the explicit connections to us today. We are creation echoing the song of the angels. We are the people of the Hebrews praising Jesus with song and waving palms. We are the people praying and praising, asking God to hear us as God has always heard God's people. The triumphant entry was not just a long ago event. It is echoed in our own lives and worship.
We even make the same mistakes. Sometimes we expect that God will act in a certain way and are surprised, disappointed, or angry when God's plan is different. But just as the people expected an earthly King and instead were given a heavenly one, God's plans for us are always greater than we could imagine.