The Rev. Alan Akridge didn’t have to go to seminary to learn about Palm Sunday.
“I’m what they call a cradle Episcopal,’’ said the rector at St. Marks Episcopal Church. “I was baptized in the church and never left.”
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, marks Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just before he was crucified.
All four gospels have an account of that triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before Passover. Matthew and Mark say people spread their clothes, cut branches from trees and celebrated as Jesus rode a donkey colt into the city. It is John alone who specifically wrote about palms.
“They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel!’ ” John 12: 13 says.
“It’s considered to be a High Holy Day for liturgical churches,’’ including Catholic, Episcopal and Anglican congregations, Akridge said.
But growing up in Mobile, Ala., he was acutely aware of all the days of the Easter season, from Fat Tuesday to Ash Wednesday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
“I’m from Mobile, the birthplace of Mardi Gras,’’ he said.
If Mardi Gras was in its infancy in Mobile, it became a rowdy adult in New Orleans.
“Shrove Tuesday is a huge deal,’’ back in Mobile, Akridge said. “I remember growing up with Mardi Gras leading straight into Ash Wednesday.”
It was the season of azaleas, dogwoods and palm fronds that people fashioned into crosses and wore to church.
“There was an art to taking a palm frond and making it into a cross and pinning it to your blue blazer and walking into the church,’’ he said.
It is the recognition and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus’ physical body after three days in the tomb that makes Christians what they are.
“There would be no Christianity without Easter, the Resurrection, “Akridge said.
Palm Sunday marks the end of Lent, a season that worshipers in liturgical churches understand as a “period of fasting, repentance and service,’’ Akridge said.
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week and “Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem the last day of his life,’’and a week later the ultimate triumph, Akridge said.
“The resurrection of the body to life everlasting. It’s the empty tomb,’’ he said of Easter.
Having grown up in a tradition that continued throughout his ministry, COVID-19 has compelled Akridge to depart from it on Palm Sunday.
“In lieu of a sermon, we usually have a liturgical play,’’ he said. “We read the Passion liturgy from front to back on Palm Sunday.”
Everyone in the church has a part. Someone is assigned to read Pontius Pilate’s lines, there are parts for the chief priests and scribes and the congregation serves as the crowd that witnessed Jesus’ trial and shouted, “Crucify him.’’
But with COVID safety advisories that say it’s not safe to meet in large groups, especially with people singing and shouting, that is not possible this year so Akridge will deliver a Palm Sunday message.
“Because of COVID, services have to be shorter. There will be a homily,’’ he said.
Palm Sunday was among Jesus’ final hours in a the body of a man.
Although he took a triumphal ride it was straight into a scenario in which his body would be scourged and put to death on a cross in a method that brought shame.
“Easter is about the human being becoming divine again, in a way we don’t really understand. This is very much a mystery,’’ he said.
It is Easter, Akridge said, that caused the explosion of Christianity, which he likened to the Big Bang theory.
Easter is when Heaven reclaims the universe, he said.
But it started with Jesus riding into a Jerusalem on a humble mount along a road strewn with clothes and palm branches.