“Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.” Mark 11:8
In the closing years of my parochial ministry, I gave up using notes for my sermons, instead I would use acronyms or initial letters as an aide memoire for the points I wanted to make, so it was that Saint Mark’s account of the entry into Jerusalem was discussed in terms of four “Bs.” The four “Bs” seem apt on this lockdown Palm Sunday.
Chapter 11 Verse 1 says that they were approaching Jerusalem and reached “Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives”. Bethphage and Bethany are villages outside of the city. Coming on the road from Jericho, Jesus and his friends would have passed through Bethany before coming to Bethphage.
Our first “B” is “Bethphage”. The name of the village means “House of unripe figs” or “House of early figs”. It seems an appropriate placename in lockdown. Hopes not yet fulfilled are what sustain people at the present time. Jesus passes through the village to Jerusalem to fulfil his mission. Bethphage is a place that reminds readers that the full fruits of Jesus’ ministry are yet to come, that what has happened so far has been a prelude to the great work he will achieve in Jerusalem.
Bethphage is a place name to challenge people about their own commitment to following Jesus. In Saint John Chapter 15 Verse 16, Jesus tells his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Saint Paul takes up that theme in the Letter to the Romans Chapter 7 Verse 5, “In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.” People called to bear fruit, to show God’s presence and God’s work in their lives, even in the times of gloom that now prevail. Bethphage was the place of the unripe or the early figs; Christians are called to be unlike that placename, instead, even in the most unpromising of times, to be like a fully ripened harvest.
The second “B” is “branches. The tradition of laying branches and fragrant herbs in the path of someone important went centuries. In the days of the Maccabees, in the second century before Jesus, the Sciptures tell of the people recovering the Temple. The First Book of Maccabees Chapter 13 Verse 51 says, “On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” Palm branches are about celebrating a triumph, about celebrating the return of God to his Temple. Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 8 says, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.”
Thinking of the branches and of the celebrations of those people, there is a question as to whether Christians now ever really celebrate. Have there been signs in these past months of Christians being joyful despite the adversities? Has anyone felt so moved by their faith that they have stood out in the street in the fresh air and shouted out what they believed? If Bethphage asks us about the way people live out their faith, the branches ask whether they are prepared to declare that faith.
The third “B” is “Blessed”. Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 10 says that the crowd shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The Greek word translated as “blessed” is “eulogemene,” as it sounds, it means “to speak well of. The crowd are happy to speak well of Jesus when it is a popular thing to do, to speak well of him when everyone else is cheering, but five days later instead of speaking well of Jesus, they shouted “crucify him”.
Palm Sunday anticipates the populism of the present times. It anticipates opinions that are easily swayed. Christians can easily slip into being people who are easily swayed. They can speak well of Jesus when it suits them and turn their backs on him when standing up for their faith becomes something difficult? Can people always say “blessed” when they hear of Jesus, or are there too many times when they would prefer he was not present? How ready are people to welcome him at all times?
The third “B”, asking about willingness to speak words of welcome,leads to the fourth “B” in the story, the village of Bethany. Saint Mark concludes his description of Palm Sunday in Chapter 1 Verse 11, “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
“Bethany” means “the house of the poor” or “the house of the sick”, it was a placename that spoke of care of hospitality of welcome. Jesus went there because it was the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead. It was a place with happy memories, a place where Jesus and his friends would be welcomed with open arms.
Reading the name “Bethany” today, thinking about its meaning in times that are filled with suspicion and xenophobia, how ready are Christians to be people who offer a welcome to everyone whom they might meet? How ready are they to be people who care for everyone? If Jesus came to the door, would he find a welcome, or would people be too busy, have too many other things to do, make excuses?
Four “Bs” for Palm Sunday: Bethphage, branches, blessed and Bethany, four Bs that ask what what friendship with Jesus means.