Palm Sunday puts you on edge from the opening scenes. You know the show will be nonstop drama. The script merits admiration because it sets up the key to an essential dogma of what makes us, what shall I say, Occidentals, inheritors and I would hope keepers of the Judeo-Christian civilization that is at present under a degree of stress.
The key is courage, the courage to do what conscience says you must; the dogma is freedom.
Palm Sunday this year falls on the first day of Passover. The contrast between the two celebrations appears stark at first. Jews remember, and thus, if faith-bound, relive, a miraculous deliverance that requires the courage to leap into a risky venture. Moses’ encouragement to a recalcitrant people is backed by the steely harshness of the set designer, as Exodus relates, who made things more desperate.
“The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land” — where, mind, they were the most wretched slaves, toiling in chains to build monuments to heathen vanities.
On Palm Sunday, Matthew chronicles how Jesus, despite a premonition of what awaits him, enters Jerusalem with his followers on a humble ass and how the people rejoice and place palm leaves and clothes in his path because they view him as the Great Redeemer in a time of troubles.
“Behold your king, riding on a donkey!” wrote the prophet Zechariah.
The West won its liberties because of faith.
Which is the more powerful plot line — or can they be reconciled, God smiting the enemies of his people, but at what cost? — the blood, face it, of innocents, or the Prince of Peace coming to town to bring reconciliation (as well as censure to flouters of the temple) and offer a new take on salvation, which was bound to have costs as well?
It cannot be said that the Creator of all things did not give the Egyptian tyrants a chance. Moses, a prince of the dynasty, at least by some accounts, gave diplomacy the old college try and then some. Louis Armstrong put it as well as anyone can:
But, you know, people are arrogant. The pharaoh does not relent — because God hardens his heart or because he has no heart, in the sense of compassionate conservatism. I am not making light of anything; this is what happens when it boils down to raw power.
But the Lord instructed Moses and Aaron — with some help from Tsiporah and Miriam — to prepare the people of Israel to make a run for it under cover of night. They would not have time to bake their bread, so they would have to pack unleavened loaves — as it were, matzah. Water and flour, which has a rather flat taste — and again I am not making light, it is just that what always jumps at you with these stories is how unerringly true they are. You cannot help but be lightheaded. Why, by the way, do you think there are more Jewish violinists than pianists?
It is the joy of freedom, which is expressed in both in the flight by a ragged, half-starved band toward the Promised Land on which Jerusalem will be built; and in the Resurrection that will conclude the drama begun with the humble entry into this very city by a descendant of these ex-slaves.
The West won its liberties because of faith. It took a long time to establish the principle of liberty, and sustaining its practice is an never-ending job, but it began in faith, and it continues — if continue it will — with faith, because if you cannot believe, which of course is your choice to make, then must you not succumb to despair? And is despair not a sin, by any criteria?
We can, in our modern age, choose what to believe, how to believe. Or we can insist this is not so; we must believe what tradition and hierarchy commands us to believe. These questions are way above my lowly pay grade. They represent a whole bundle of issues: believe our teachers (Moses being the first of these, the scientists being the latest?); believe our texts (and of which canon and in what form or translation?); believe our dogmas and our leaders? Was Martin Luther a heretic? Was Baruch Spinoza?
If my children ask, or my grandchildren, I can say, “Oh, that is a hard one; you must do your schoolwork and you will learn, and now let us sit down and we can read the Haggadah. It is a start.” Should I show them a cartoon? The Prince of Egypt tells them, “There can be miracles when you believe.” It is pretty cute, I have to say, and, I guess, I would have to admit I think it is true. But they tell me I am, like Rick Blaine, a sentimentalist.