The Advance Team: Meditations on Palm Sunday

[Editor’s Note: We published this reflection for Palm Sunday 2013, and while some of circumstantial details are now dated, the connections between a Presidential visit and the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem remain fresh.]

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry visited the Middle East last week, first stopping in Israel, and then traveling on to Jordan, where I currently live. For the last couple of weeks, the U.S. embassy has been in full swing to support that visit. I have a part-time job at the embassy, a pretty standard clerical job, the kind of work that spouses of Foreign Service officers tend to fill. By virtue of that position, along with many other embassy personnel, both American and Jordanian, I was tasked to serve on a team with a small role for this official visit.

I was on luggage duty for POTUS – the President of the United States.

The simple task was to be ready for the arrival of Air Force One, wait until most of the other crews had done their part, help with unloading luggage from the famous plane to a truck, and finally accompany that luggage to deliver it safely to a hotel. With the massive security concerns, our luggage team had to be in place well in advance of the time when we would actually perform our role. Much of the day was classically “hurry up and wait,” giving me ample time to observe, think, and wonder.

Seeing the whole process – the numbers of people involved, the unbelievable amount of infrastructure, security, and sheer coordination it took to pull off a presidential visit – was extraordinary. I witnessed a lot of it from a humble little bus in a vast airport parking lot. There were huge lines of vehicles, multiple teams of Secret Service agents, lots of firearms strapped to commando-types’ legs, and all kinds of support vehicles equipped for any potential contingency or emergency. Guys in suits with earpieces marched all around, giving orders. Jordanian soldiers and guards paced around as well. Gaggles of photographers and videographers jostled to be in place in time to get the money shot.

From my vantage point, it was hard to know how all these disparate parts were working, how everyone knew what they needed to do. There were various means and layers of communication among the hundreds of people present, but we on the luggage crew didn’t hear most of it. We got the information we needed to know, which was pretty scant. So we waited and watched.

Finally, after a nasty sandstorm delayed the plane’s arrival, Air Force One touched down at last. Eventually, the official cars in the grand motorcade sped off with the President and Secretary of State, and the luggage crew was ready to do our bit, long after most of the other teams had dispersed. We marched across the tarmac to the still roaring Air Force One and helped to unload the gear into a truck.

Mind you, we didn’t go aboard. All we did was move some bags off a conveyer belt onto a truck. It was an incredibly small task in a huge, important operation. But it still mattered that we were there, even if our role was really small.

Palm Sunday got me thinking about this presidential visit. I kept comparing the events of the weekend to those of Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem, on what the church now calls Palm Sunday. Jesus sent an advance team too. What’s an advance team? An advance team is the group of people that goes ahead of the important visitor to get things ready. They make sure that everyone knows what they need to do to prepare for the VIP’s arrival, and that they actually do it. They keep all the support teams on track to ensure that all required preparations have been executed as perfectly as possible for someone like a President or a cabinet Secretary, or a Savior.

Jesus’ advance team? Well, first, he formed it and sent them himself. No grand logistical experts, no control officers handling all the details; just a bunch of disciples, one of whom was already embezzling money and preparing to betray the Lord. The others were sometimes obsessed with their own grandeur and status in the Kingdom, and were at times just a bit daft. These were no polished professionals.

young donkey

But Jesus chose them, which makes all the difference in the world, and he was more than capable of directing them for his purposes. He gave the instructions to his advance team himself, sending two of his disciples to get a donkey for him to ride, with “need to know” instructions as well. He didn’t say, “Well, you see, guys, I’m going to ride this donkey into town, make my entrance, and I just need something to ride on.” Instead, he told them, “If anyone asks you, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘His Master needs him.’ ” (Luke 19:28-48, MSG)

Even in Jesus’ day, there were VIPs and advance teams. The Romans knew how to stage an official visit. This is nothing we’ve invented. But Jesus does not do it. Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem, his “grand entrance” into the city, is remarkable for its utter humility, for its refusal to participate in the ceremonial staging.

Yet his entrance to the city of Jerusalem winds up being one of the most elegant and stirring official visits ever conducted. And the agenda for the Jerusalem visit was earth-redeeming. As the blessed donkey shouldered its holy load, the praises rose from the people. If they hadn’t praised, the stones would have been ready to do it for them (Luke 19:40). The meetings Jesus knew he would have that week – with his disciplines in the Upper Room, with chief priests and elders, with Pontius Pilate, with sin and death itself at the cross – were already on the schedule in his mind. It would be a grueling week, and it would end with him suffering and dying.

But first, the arrival.

It’s hard to appreciate just how humble it was. I regularly see adults and children riding donkeys around our wealthy neighborhood and past our house. They are usually incredibly poor people. They ride a donkey to get from dumpster to dumpster to look for odds and ends that might have a bit of value in them left to squeeze out. The donkeys plod along, and stand quietly, heads bowed, as their rider digs through trash. These animals have no grand air about them. But that’s what Jesus chose. He could have built himself a little VIP carrier (he was an able carpenter, remember), and he could have ordered his disciples to carry him into the city on a purple pillow. Instead, he sent his advance team to get a donkey.

Also, no one around him was armed. He knew he was riding into a rat’s nest of intrigue and plotting. The Pharisees were already on his heels, watching and waiting to make a move. They chided Jesus, suggesting that the people’s praise offered during his entrance to the city was inauthentic, that his disciples were whipping up the crowds. But there really wasn’t that kind of staging. The people’s praises had integrity down to their bones. They were grabbing what they could around them to honor Jesus – palm branches, coats, whatever they could lay their hands on. They weren’t ready to praise; they had to improvise. With that crowd and the danger that was ahead within the city, Jesus still arrived with no security apparatus, no bodyguards, no Secret Service, and no guns. (Well, maybe Peter was armed with a sword… but still, not on orders from Jesus.)

I don’t think it’s wrong that a president has so much preparation given to him. I think it’s probably necessary, and it suits the office and its position to have hundreds of people working to prepare for his visit. It’s a suitable honor, and the work dignifies it even more. But it is startling to think about how the King of Kings upended what we call honor by choosing such a self-effacing, humble path.

I’d rather be on his luggage crew any day. Blessings on your Holy Week.


Photos: Laura Merzig Fabrycky; Andreas Krappweis

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