Some years ago I worked for a church that had a Palm Sunday tradition of dressing someone up like Jesus, putting Jesus on a donkey and letting him lead the children in a parade through church, procession and palm branches following. I’m not sure about the origin of this practice; and I thought it slightly ironic as, in several of the Gospels, one of the first thing Jesus does in Holy Week, right after Palm Sunday, is make a whip of chords and drive the animals and their handlers out of the temple. I kept this thought to myself. Still, the donkey became a beloved Palm Sunday tradition. It even shared a name with the church’s previous pastor.
Of course, animals indoors for too long cause obvious problems; and one Palm Sunday this donkey did what could be reasonably expected of him. So the next year it was decided that the junior-most pastors in the church would don costumes, follow Jesus, and be ready at a moment’s notice to respond to any messes the donkey might make in the church. This meant me.
As luck would have it, I had another commitment in worship on Palm Sunday the year I was slated for donkey duty, so I was spared the indignity of dawning the costume and wielding the shovel. That was left to my colleague, who did it all with much better humor than I would have. The shovel itself became an apt metaphor for some of the less desirable aspects of our work.
In retrospect, the tradition still surprises me. The church I’m writing of I remember fondly. And one of the things I appreciate about them is their balance of decorum and warmth in worship. But that balance still didn’t mean that traditions changed easily — nor even that they were especially well-thought-out.
Once upon a time, during a meeting of the Presbytery (a collection of representatives from regional Presbyterian churches), it was said that an audible gasp was heard as the meeting’s business was projected against the front wall of the church, as if PowerPoint desecrated the space in a way a donkey never could. I still wonder how to account for the difference between the two reactions — a projector and a live animal. What seemed innocuous to me was shocking and transgressive. What seemed trite and a bit sacrilegious to me was for them a winsome recreation of the story of Jesus. Who was right? Who was wrong?
We don’t know why we think the things we do — why we react so strongly when we walk into a church. We know things are going well when there isn’t anything especially remarkable: when you leave worship and you’re thinking about God and not the look of the space or the objectionable thing the pastor said or the person singing out of key next to you. But it’s these other things that — for good or bad — draw our attention.
A pastoral colleague of mine once upon a time succeeded a predecessor who had a reputation for freelancing. This particular freelancing pastor had a friend who was an artist, and so he commissioned his friend to paint portraits of different members of the congregation. You can imagine the surprise of the church when, one Sunday, arriving for worship, they found their portraits hanging on the wall of the sanctuary. The portraits became a permanent figure of the church and, after some time, a point of contention. Could the space be holy when it was full of the images of people you went to church with (and didn’t always get along with)?
We don’t take it lightly when people change things about the way we practice our faith in worship because, at least subconsciously, we recognize that the things we do are reflections of the things we believe: meaning, they’re reflections about what we confess to be God’s own truth.
But it’s not just at church when we react so strongly to things that violate our view of sanctity. This is why, I’m assuming, people get upset about politics or masks or any of the changes we experience to communities or countries that seem threatening or violating. There could be other reasons; but one important one, I would argue, has to do with our expectation that things should be a certain way, which often looks a lot like our preference.
And Jesus is concerned with this sort of thing, too. The first thing he does when he arrives in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is drive out the practitioners of exploitative economics and crass commercialism from the temple, from the place where the people worshipped God.
But he doesn’t stop there. This is what Jesus says about the temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The religious leaders respond to Jesus, “This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and will you raise it up in three days?” Implied in their response is an understanding of what’s holy. This space where they come to meet God. But Jesus tells them that God isn’t just present in a place, but in a person — himself. And that, as he is beaten and broken on the cross, something of true holiness and redemption, God’s own presence, is discovered.
Jesus drives out the moneychangers and the animals because the temple is supposed to be holy. But Jesus also speaks of the temple of his body. God is present in the places we worship, but God is fully present in the one we worship — through the presence of people. The Apostle Paul picks up on the theme and confronts us, too: “Don’t you know you are a temple of the Holy Spirit?”
When we are concerned about the sanctity of the world, or our church, or the week to come, or anything at all, Jesus reminds us to consider our own.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.