I Come in Peace–or How I Learned to Stop Fearing Palm Sunday

An 1842 painting of Christ's entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte.

Many parts of Lent are solemn, and some are downright sad; I once saw a woman crying so much during a Good Friday service on the island of Corfu that I whispered to my mother, “You should tell her it has a happy ending.” Because that’s the whole point of Easter, right? The Resurrection, the happiest ending of all?

And I get that life also has moments of solemnity and great sorrow, and it’s cathartic to enact that experience during Easter, to go through that knowing it will all come out right in the end. But for me, what I think should be one the upbeat notes in the Easter symphony was always scary and dramatic, Wagnerian even. And that I have to blame on Hollywood.

See, when I was growing up and attending Sunday School at St. Spyridon’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral, we Sunday School students had to watch a religious movie during the extra long Palm Sunday service. Or, I should say, we got to watch a movie. This was supposed to be a treat; every kid likes movies better than classwork, especially religious classwork, right?

Does this Savior look happy? The DVD cover of "The Greatest Story Ever Told", a 1965 flick that I believe is the movie that scarred me.

The thing that none of the adults seemed to realize is that religious movies tend to be really violent, bloody and scary. (And this was before Mel Gibson had anything to do with it.) Looking back, I would imagine that the powers that be probably ended the movie (and they tend to be superlong) with Palm Sunday, which is one of the happy high points of the Lenten season, commemorating the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, to indicate he was the Prince of Peace. (Apparently, in the Eastern tradition, the horse was the animal of War, and war-waging kings would ride to battle on horses, while the donkey was the animal of peace, and the very same kings would ride donkeys when they wanted to indicate that they had nothing but peaceful intentions.) In celebration of Jesus’s arrival, people covered the donkey’s path with palm fronds (apparently the Biblical equivalent of a red carpet).

This all sounds like good times, right? (Unless you consider that perhaps some of those same people attended the trial and crucifixion a week later, and that the officials’ jealousy of the positive reception Jesus received may be part what spurred the powers-that-be on to arrest Him, all of which really plays into my need to fake-spit when something good happens so as not to tempt the Evil Eye. I realize I’m conflating religious stories with pre-Christian ritual there, but that’s just the way it is; some of these archetypes–like obvious blessings inspiring jealousy and perhaps invoking disaster–are universal archetypes, and with good reason. Religions and superstition and psychiatry, all of these things have to contend, in part, with the same raw material: human nature. But I digress.)

Of course, to get to Palm Sunday, cinematically speaking, you first have to watch Herod’s Murder of the Innocents, and maybe the dying Lazarus, or a sort of scary ascetic John the Baptist. The point is, in a Bible movie, there’s no such thing as a free lunch or an upbeat scene without a bloody counterpart. So perhaps it was those scenes that traumatized me, or maybe one year we had a visiting priest who liturgized on and on for long enough, preaching to the parents in church, that we kids ended up having to watch the whole movie. In fact, I have a vague memory of watching the whole movie in two parts, so maybe it was a two-Sunday endeavor, the week before Palm Sunday and Palm Sunday itself. In any case, in my hazy mind, I am sure that at some point I saw the whole unspecified Easter movie, and it traumatized me.

Now this is more child-friendly, people! Look at the happy donkey!

After that shattering experience, my natural self-protective reflexes kicked in to high gear. In order to avoid the scourging, the crown of thorns, the crucifixion scenes (so much scarier in Technicolor than on a nice, elegant, gold-leaf icon), I would worm my way into attending the actual Palm Sunday church service with my dad. There was lovely, soft music. There were palm fronds artfully crafted into the shape of crosses. There was the soothing voice of Father Dean, and a total absence of gangs of kids whispering, and scary music and fake blood that looked like real blood. It was a little slice of heaven.

Palm crosses from Eric P's photostream on Flickr

Looking back, I think that Palm Sunday may have been one of the first times I realized that the great thing about being an adult is that, for the most part, you get to decide what you want to do. Sure, you have to figure out a way to achieve certain things–make money, work, pay taxes, be a law-abiding citizen. But how you do that is–at least in part–up to you. And no one is going to make you watch scary movies and pretend it’s fun. That alone is a blessing.




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