Today is Palm Sunday. It is the beginning of what Roman Catholics and most other Christians as well, refer to as "Holy Week". Each day of this week has some significance. It begins with Palm Sunday. Then follows Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, culminating with Easter Sunday. This weeks marks when Jesus came into Jerusalem ending with his crucifixion and resurrection.
The event commemorated on Palm Sunday is told in all four gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 12). The Matthew narrative, the one most commonly read in services on Palm Sunday, tells the story this way:
"As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away...
"The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey (which represented the Jewish people) and the colt (which represented the Gentiles), placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"
"When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?" the crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galillee.'"
Celebrations of Palm Sunday began almost as soon as the Romans quit using the Christians for a lion buffet. Records indicate that early Christians began to recreate the event in Jerusalem as far back as 400 CE. The practice soon spread throughout the world. Since palms are unknown in Europe, the event came to be called willow Sunday, or Holy Sunday. Many churches distribute palm fronds (well, leaves from palm fronds) to people in church on this Sunday. These pieces of palm are blessed and then eventually burned, the ashes of which are used the next year for ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Maundy Thursday marks the occasion of the last supper, the first distribution of the communion. At this supper Jesus held up the bread and wine and informed his pals that they were his body and blood, symbolic of the new covenant between man and God. There is an important difference to note between a contract and a covenant. A contract requires give and take. I do this for you, and you do this for me. A covenant does not imply this. A covenant is, simply, a promise. God is saying, through the covenant, I'm not pissed at you anymore.
Maundy Thursday is also the day on which Jesus is arrested and put on trial. His trial was illegal by Jewish law on a number of points. For one thing, it was not permitted to place an accused criminal on trial during the night. Trials were to occur during the day so they might be viewed by the public in order to guarantee a certain level of fairness. Moreover, there had to be at least two witnesses who witnessed the accused commit the crime. None of the witnesses who testified against Jesus agreed on exactly what he did or said. His conviction was based solely on the questioning by the high priest Caiphas.
On Good Friday, they killed him. And it wasn't too pleasant either. Just watch Mel Gibson's movie. Actually, Jesus died pretty easy, all things considered. Generally, crucifixion took days and days. It was a slow, painful death. Jesus died after only six hours on the cross according to the story. Because this is a day of mourning for the church, this is the one day during the year that Catholic churches do not offer communion.
The next day is Holy Saturday. This is the day that Jesus rested in the tomb. According to many early church documents, it is also the day that Jesus descended into Hell to preach the gospel to the souls in the land of the dead. This is not accepted by all Christian churches, however. None of the books of the Bible mention this. Catholic churches will have no services today until the Easter Vigil Mass that evening. And let me tell you, that is one long service. It usually lasts about three hours. It is during this Mass that all the people who have been going through the process of converting to Roman Catholicism are baptized, and/or confirmed, and/or receive their first communion.
All this week, this Holy Week, celebrates the Passion of Christ, the historical event, not the movie. This is, after all, really the biggest part of what Christianity is, the message of Jesus not withstanding. It is the culmination of several thousand years of tradition. Remember that it was Jewish belief that it was because of the sin of Adam and Eve that people die. The nature of that "sin" and the theological meaning of it can be debated forever, and has been, but the basic essence of it is that because those two screwed up, we have to die. This was general equation: sin = death. The whys of this can also be discussed and debated ad nauseum, but this is the general concept. The only way this consequence could be rectified is through the death of one blameless person. Whether you believe or not that Jesus was that person, there is no doubt that JESUS believed he was that person.
Jesus said that through his death he would free mankind from the scourge of death, that he could set us free from fear. That by proving that there was no death, he could free us of the atavistic fear that has enslaved us all since, like, forever. Now a lot of people might argue that his gesture wasn't necessary, that we were free whether he sacrificed himself or not. But I would argue that the perception of truth is the same as truth itself. The culture in which Jesus lived believed that they were burdened by the curse of death because of the actions of Adam and Eve. Whether that was true or not, they BELIEVED it was true. And they would never believe they were free of that curse unless the laws passed down from Moses were satisfied. A pure lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus was that lamb.
Jesus said that he was that sacrifice, and he gave his life willingly in the faith and belief that through his death, mankind would be saved from death. And he was right. Because, once you realize that there is no real death, then you are free to live fully. The Hindus and the Buddhists had never believed that death was final. They had reincarnation. They were not chained to that fear of termination. But the Jewish culture was. Thus, it should never be forgotten that the Christian faith and Easter is a celebration of the resurrection. Whether you believe that Jesus rose in the flesh or not, he stands for the eternal nature of the spirit.
And one thing is certain. Something sure as hell happened two thousand years ago. Had Jesus died on that cross and was buried, he would have been forgotten. But for some reason, the people who followed him, his closest friends and disciples, along with thousands of others came to believe, to the point of an agonizing death, that Jesus had survived death. Whether Jesus appeared to them in the flesh, or whether some spirit-type apparition appeared to them, they came to the belief that Jesus was alive. And there can be no doubt that SOMETHING happened, whatever it was. And, whatever it was, was enough to convince them that death ceased to exist. So, for these people, Jesus DID have to suffer and die in order to release them from the "curse" of death. Whether or not this was an actual requirement of the spiritual universe or not is open to debate.
The message Jesus taught, of love, tolerance, inclusion, and forgiveness, the message of a spiritual connection to the God-head changed the world. There is no doubt about that. His followers have screwed it up over and over again, but that isn't Jesus' fault. People are going to fuck things up. But ultimately, the power of Christianity, the essence of the faith, rests in the passion and the resurrection. And in our lives, we each have our own passions through which we pass and from which we rise again, over and over.
Somehow we know that if we all could be like Jesus, the world would be a better place. And following his example, we could all be willing to give of ourselves, even to the point of death, for one another. And in living that life, we continue to set each other free. That is simple Christianity.