There is always a delicious irony when April Fool’s Day falls on or near Holy Week or Easter. Certainly, it is something to be played with in contemplation of the world’s view of the events of Jesus’s Passion and death and the April Fool’s joke of Easter that God played on the whole world. This year April 1 falls on Maundy Thursday. So there are opportunities aplenty to bring these two events together to help us explore the depths of the gospel and how it stands outside of what the culture calls “common sense” and presents a message that seems nonsensical on its face.
As always, there are choices to be made during this season —and particularly on this Palm/Passion Sunday. There is the inclination to let the Palm Sunday event stand on its own and allow the congregation to experience the full weight of the day throughout the service. This allows the preacher to dig deep into the nuance and the symbolism of all that took place on that day.
The problem arises when we admit that the attendance on Palm Sunday and Easter far outweighs the attendance at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. If Palm Sunday leaves aside the Passion part of the title, our congregations go from a parade to a Resurrection party without ever experiencing the depths of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Some have even argued that we shouldn’t allow anyone to attend Easter Sunday services without proof that they attended a Good Friday service somewhere! That is hardly practical, admittedly, but in the secret part of the preacher’s soul, there is resonance here.
Most, however, find a way to give a nod to the Passion on Palm Sunday. Both elements enter into the experience of the worshiper on this Sunday before Easter, leaving participants with the desire to return for the rest of the story. We don’t want people to leave in despair, but perhaps with something of the feeling of the weight that Jesus bore on our behalf.
Inherent in these matters is the feeling that something is foolish about all this, which is why it might be worth raising the issue of April Fools’ Day, either here on Palm Sunday or on the actual day on Maundy Thursday. (See notes for that service.)
But let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the secular observance of April Fools’ Day. Some have said that New Year’s Day used to be on April 1 and when it got moved to January 1, some folks forgot, wanted to hold on to the old date, or simply refused to acknowledge the change; so they continued to celebrate New Year’s on April 1. Naturally, these folks were called April Fools. Others dispute this origin, as you would expect.
Maybe it has connections back to the Roman Festival of Hilaria. Think about it, wouldn’t you want to celebrate the Festival of Hilaria? Or the Mediaeval Festival of Fools, that sounds like a don’t miss on everyone’s vacation schedule. Both of these were in the spring, or vernal equinox celebrations when everyone goes a little crazy after a long cold winter. There was an element of turning the tables on these events, a bottom of the heap folk seeing how the other half lives dimension. These events were designed to vent the pressure that sometimes leads to revolution by acknowledging that sometimes life just isn’t fair, that the have-nots are not any less than the haves. It was a chance for just a day, just a moment, to get back, to get even, to get your two cents in, a sort of “so there” in-your-face, thumbing your nose at those who think they are in charge of everything and everyone.
So, of course, Palm Sunday near April Fools’ Day is strangely fitting. You know the story; you’ve marched in the parade. You didn’t know you were participating in civil unrest, did you? You didn’t realize you were making a statement about how the world was ordered. But that is what this event was designed to do and to be.
One of the questions endlessly debated is whether this incident was accidental or planned. Did Jesus one day decide to make a trip into Jerusalem, and a parade broke out? Or was this deliberately chosen and planned out to make a statement at this specific time? The truth is, we may never know. But we do know that the Jesus who spent the first part of the Gospel of Mark telling people not to tell who he was, to keep it all a secret, all of a sudden makes a big announcement.
He rides this colt into the city of Jerusalem, and his followers walk with him and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Neither of those were random acts. When a king is going to war, he rides a horse. When he is proclaiming himself a king of peace, he rides a donkey and only enhances that statement of peace by choosing an unridden colt. The words that were spoken come from one of the enthronement psalms, used when a new king was coming into power.
That is hard to miss, really. It was a slap in the face to all those who thought they were in charge. It was a declaration of authority and power in a place of power and authority who saw Jesus as an outsider. It was the best April Fools’ prank ever. The one who appeared powerless is the one who is the King of kings. The one who rode into a war zone with the authorities out for his blood is the Prince of Peace.
“Hosanna” was a common word in royal psalms. It was understood by most folks to be a statement of celebration, a shout of joy and welcome. And it was. But originally it had a translation that meant “Save Us” or “Save now!” For leader after leader, the crowds would shout “Save us!” to one who, more often than not, was more concerned about his own safety and prosperity. And now, they shout “Hosanna” to the one who can save them, but most of the city doesn’t even know what is going on.
When we lift our palms and wave them on Palm Sunday morning, we declare our allegiance to the Prince of Peace, the one the world considered a fool, the one the world did its best to destroy. And perhaps we are participating in the best April Fools’ Day ever.
On the other hand, sometimes April Fools get fooled. Maybe a better description is to acknowledge that the world resists being turned upside down. Or at least it won’t stay that way for long. The powers and principalities of this world come rushing back in; and order, as they understand it, is restored.
That is why Palm Sunday is not just Palm Sunday; it is more properly Palm/Passion Sunday. That slash is important. It is a reminder that there is risk involved in taking the side of the marginalized. There is danger in trying to upset the status quo. And just when you think you’ve won your point and gathered your crowd, you discover you are alone again.
At least that was Jesus’ experience this Holy Week. From the parade to the way of sorrows, from the king of peace riding on a donkey to a hated criminal hanging on a cross, from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him” in a matter of days. Who’s the April Fool now?
Maybe it is us, for clinging to hope in a hopeless world. Maybe it is us, for embracing life in a world obsessed with death. Maybe it’s us. Maybe it is him, who continues teaching through the insults, as Isaiah described centuries before he arrived. Maybe it’s him, proclaiming Easter joy in a Good Friday world.
Maybe so. Still, I’ll wave my palm and shout my hosannas, even though... Call it April Fools’ if you want. I’d rather be a fool for Christ anyway.