When I was just shy of thirteen, my parents took me on my first big trip: ten days in London and Paris over Christmas and New Year’s.
And while I remember London, and it was great—oh my goodness: PARIS.
I was a New Yorker and certainly used to cities.
And yet, I was not emotionally prepared for Paris.
For so many reasons, it was something. Even to a teenager.
We arrived in the late afternoon. Found our way from Gare du Nord to our hotel, which was near the Boulevard St. Michel.
As darkness fell, I told my parents that I wanted to go to a bookstore I’d noticed as we’d pulled in – a place that was only a stone’s throw from our room, which you could plainly see from our hotel window.
I don’t remember how I said this. I hope I was nonchalant.
Now that I am a parent, myself, I reckon such moments differently—and so let’s see: 13 year old kid. Foreign country. New city. Foreign language I’d been studying for a little more than a year, which was just enough to say my name and that, whoever you were, I was enchanted to make your acquaintance.
There was different money. It was nighttime.
I’m not sure why I floated this idea.
My parents were firmly of the “come straight home from school and call each of us at work when you’re there” school of parenting.
But for whatever reason, this time they said yes.
So out I went into the world.
And for fifteen minutes, and unbeknownst to me, probably with my mom pressed to the window, watching my every move, I had a taste of what it was to be grown up. What it was to be free.
I’ve been remembering that as I’ve been reading Luke’s account of Palm Sunday this week.
I’m remembering what it was like to be stepping out—to be stepping into a city I’d been hearing about and learning about and trying to imagine for what seemed like ages.
For the followers of Jesus, the city of Jerusalem would have been Paris and Washington and New York and Chicago all rolled into one.
It was not obvious that a person from the hinterlands would ever find their way there in a lifetime.
But there they were.
How thrilling it must have been. Unbelievable.
Jerusalem was always packed for the holiday of Passover, so we have to imagine the disciples walking up the road into the holy among hundreds of pilgrims.
In the case of the disciples, they were probably pushing it, feeling the burn as they tried to get there early enough that they could greet Jesus when he arrived on that donkey, so that when he arrived, they’d be standing around in their Yankees caps and their black jeans like city slickers who’d been there forever.
“Hey Jesus, what took you so long?”
They must have felt so free.
As if anything was possible.
That’s how he’d taught them to feel about themselves. To see their lives as full of possibility.
For so many others, life was little more than a foregone conclusion, as something all but certain to move along a very narrow path.
Stay close to home. Honor your parents. Take up the work of your ancestors and station in life. Marry the one your parents said was right for the family…and, you know, more or less, for you. Teach your children to stay close to home, to honor their parents, to take up the work of their ancestors and station in life…and so on.
That’s how it had been for them, before they met Jesus.
By contrast, Jesus seemed to represent something far less certain, but far more alive.
We can sense it in the call stories of the first disciples, which we usually read just after Christmas—all those stories of people in the midst of another day on the job in the family boat when Jesus shows up and spirits them away from all that.
And now it’s gotten them to the gates of the capital, itself.
All four gospels mention the arrival in Jerusalem, each one with its own emphasis.
It’s actually only in John’s Gospel that we hear about palms.
In Luke, the disciples throw their cloaks on the colt, and a few others make a kind of red carpet with their cloaks along the way, right up to the gates of town.
All four gospels talk about crowds.
But Luke is the only one who includes the powerful detail of the Pharisees calling out to Jesus from the sidelines of the crowd.
They tell him to knock it off with this whole display, which they can only see as a mockery of tradition.
And Jesus answers them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
It’s as if the whole city is suddenly thrumming, feeling that same freedom that the disciples are feeling, sharing their expectation that with this man, and especially in this place, anything is possible.
Jesus is coming up the hillside on that colt, parting the pilgrims on either side like Moses parting the Red Sea.
If you know the story, you’ll also know that what happens next unfolds quite differently.
The story gets darker quickly.
But the church has held on to this story, doing its best to remember this moment, just the same.
And I think it’s done that because for some of them, looking back later, it was a first, all too brief but nevertheless, wonderful moment when the scope of a new life in Jesus really began to come into view.
It was here that something about Jesus started to feel…eternal.
With everything they’d already seen, it seems sort of amazing they hadn’t put it together yet.
At various points, it’s hard to say if it’s the gospel writers or Jesus himself who are more frustrated with how slow on the uptake the disciples turn out to be.
But that’s also a little harsh.
If there is one question that the gospels keep coming back to, it isn’t how Jesus does what he does or even why Jesus does what he does.
Those are things that come up only now and again.
The question that always comes up is “Who is this?”
The reason the gospels keep circling back to it may have less to do with the understanding of the disciples, and more to do with the fact that this is the question that answers all the others.
Who is this?
If you can answer that, then many of the hows and whys of life pretty much fall into place.
For many, Palm Sunday was the moment when they first began to have an answer.
And what they also begin to understand is that who they are—who they really are—and who all of us really are—can only take its proper shape as we learn to live as he calls us to live.
So if this was the moment when something about Jesus suddenly started to feel eternal, then it was also a moment when it seemed like something about themselves might hope to have a place in his eternity.
As we said, over the next few days, they would fall well short of that vision.
One of them would even directly betray it.
The church has always expected itself to remember that, too.
But even with that just ahead, this first inkling of freedom has never lost its power to remind, encourage, and inspire us.
Just because marriage is hard doesn’t mean weddings aren’t wonderful.
The fundamental challenge of marriage is to keep seeing one another as the same people of love and hope and joy that we were on that first day, even as life and decrepitude and our own shortcomings keep getting in the way.
One of the fundamental challenges of faith is to keep believing that God could possibly love us, seeing what God must see, and knowing what God must know.
But on Palm Sunday, we get that first inkling of just how deeply God does love us.
We begin to see what true freedom might mean.
Maybe there were palms on the road that day, like John says. Or maybe it was cloaks, like Luke does.
Either way, fear not. The King approaches. Our liberation is at hand.