“Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey … do you know what a donkey is?” “A little horse?” Close enough, I think. I was trying to explain what Palm Sunday was to our Chinese guest. I had taken a couple extra palms at church in order to make palm crosses. I thought giving one to our guests from Beijing would be a good way to share some of our Christian story.
The story seems so normal to me, until I try to tell it to someone who is in no way Christian by faith or by culture. The story is awkward. A king, on a donkey, palms, children? It was similar when I tried to explain Good Friday to a Thai high school student, or when I tried explaining Santa Claus to a Vietnamese student. This Chinese man and his daughter were interested in learning about American home life, since they were considering sending her to the United States for High School. I learned long ago that our explaining our “home life” needs to include our faith. Sharing that is important. We begin with the story.
This week we are immersed in the story, beginning with the demonstration on Palm Sunday and culminating in the resurrection on Easter. Just as our Jewish neighbors tell the story of passover at seder, Holy Week, for Christians, is a week of remembering and re-experiencing our deepest truth through the story. The thing is, we need to experience the whole of it. Jesus on a donkey and palm crosses is only a piece of it. We also need to remember Jesus overturning tables in the temple, washing his disciple’s feet, sharing a holy meal in the upper room, praying in the garden, being betrayed by Judas’s kiss, being fought for by Peter’s violent ear slashing, being handcuffed and flogged into submission, being bullied and harassed by those who feel empowered by that sort of thing, being brought to Herod, on trial before Pilate … Pilate washing his hands of responsibility … Jesus standing, quietly accepting the pain of the world, being denied and abandoned by his most trusted disciples, staggering and dragging the execution instrument all the way to Skull Hill, being nailed to the cross, looking down at his mother and beloved, struggling with asphyxiation and mumbling his last words, being mourned by the women and buried in a borrowed grave.
At Monday night’s small group meeting one member of the group shared how much she enjoyed Palm Sunday’s worship service. I heard the echoes of comments I’ve heard a lot through my years of ministry … how Palm Sunday is often our members’ favorite Sunday of the year … how Easter sometimes feels like a let-down after Palm Sunday. I get it. The celebration of Palm Sunday, despite its donkey-awkwardness, is something we can relate to. Palm Sunday is huge but manageable and controllable (except for that crazy donkey) … and tangible.
Easter is … not so tangible. Easter is … understated, unexplainable, unbelievable. And we don’t have even a hint of its depth and breathtaking wonder if we don’t experience the whole story. We need to drop into the pit of despair during this “holy” week … always astoundedly aware of the unwavering faith of Jesus and the steady hope of Easter. Then we enter the break of Easter morning not with the shouting of hosannas, but with the artistry of a sunrise, the awe-filled gasp of the women at the tomb, the internalized hope and wonder of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
As awkward as it was explaining Jesus on a donkey to my Chinese houseguest, Easter seems be impossible. It’s a story that’s best not “explained” but a story that’s told and lived and experienced and cherished. And then lived again and again and again.