I stood in my church’s parlor, just outside the door that led to the sanctuary. The Palm Sunday service was almost over and the congregation was singing the last hymn “lustily,” as John Wesley had instructed the first Methodists, their hosannas loud and jubilant. I listened with mixed feelings; I was thinking about two other Palm Sunday celebrations in another part of the world. Two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt had been targeted by terrorists and scores of people were dead or injured. “In the midst of life we are in death,” I thought, recalling the first line of a Latin antiphon.
The very nature of Palm Sunday creates ambivalence. We send our children down center aisles, waving palms and singing, and tell them we are celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on this first day of Holy Week. Yet this day is also called Passion Sunday and we know another kind of walk, the walk down the Via Dolorosa, is coming before the week is over.
But we know what happens on Easter Sunday, as Jesus emerges victorious over death, victorious over evil, victorious over earthly sufferings. In our churches on Easter morning, we celebrate and look forward to sharing in Jesus’ triumph after our time on earth is over. We try to keep the end in sight as we go about our lives, but it’s hard as we struggle with imperfect relationships, physical hardships, sickness, loss, and the headlines that tell us of humankind’s inhumanity.
To walk through this life is to practice a delicate balance. I remember in school when we read John Donne’s words: “…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” I understood that as humans we were all connected, but if I were to mourn each time someone died, then I would be in a perpetual state of grief. Was I expected to never be happy in my life? Or was it possible or even permissible to carve out a bit of joy in a world with so much suffering?
Perhaps the problem lies in thinking that there is only one truth, whereas life is better represented by the yin yang, symbol of two opposite halves that together represent complete wholeness. We might recall the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…” Or remember Jesus’ words in the 16th chapter of John: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”