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  Thursday, April 02, 2020

The Life Cycle of a Palm Branch

May/June 2003

I always wondered why the people hailed Jesus of Nazareth as their King, at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, by waving palm branches. It seemed to be some presupposed cultural expression of praise, but it certainly wasn’t mine. In fact, growing up in the church, Palm Sunday felt rather contrived: Slender slices of palm fronds some folded into crosses that we parried like rapiers until our parents stopped us. A funny halfhearted procession out of sync with the organ singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” Not only did I not understand why they did it for Jesus, I didn’t feel the palm procession had much to do with me now. But it turns out that they, and we, are not only observing an ancient near-eastern religious tradition, we all point prophetically to our destiny in heaven when we carry our palms. Let me explain.

What was, and is, and is to come...

In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, God revealed through Moses, how his people were to observe the feast of Tabernacles (Booths) It is written “Now, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” (Leviticus 23:39-40) I stumbled across this in a Bible study a few years ago. It explained why the people took up palm branches for Jesus. It also explained why the Russian Orthodox Church calls the day Willow Sunday instead of Palm Sunday! (I thought it was just because the Russians didn’t have access to palms and found a plentiful alternative.) Now even though the Feast of the Tabernacles is a fall harvest festival, this helps explain the cultural expression of taking up palms. But why do we do still process with our palms?

Turns out that the palms show up again after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. They turn up in Heaven! John saw them in one of his spectacular visions “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10) Similar to the Feast of the Tabernacles in Leviticus, the taking up of palms in Revelation is a sacrament; that is, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In this case the palms are the sacrament and the inward grace is praise and rejoicing.

In the Meanwhile...

In the present life, we live between two worlds. A world into which God has entered, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. A world that he’s redeemed by his Holy Cross. A world wherein God is working out his purposes. But it is a world in pain. A world in which we still live and die as mortals. A world still filled with wars and rumors of wars, a creation that is groaning for the children of God to be revealed in their fullness. An already-but-not-yet world. It is here that we carry our floppy little palm fronds. Some people keep their palm fronds. I take mine home after Palm Sunday and slide it into a book or behind a picture frame. It yellows and dries brown. From time to time I see it and remember the hosannas I shouted. And toward the end of the season of Epiphany I bring my little palm frond back to the church. There the Altar Guild burns and grinds the dried palms of last year’s Palm Sunday, and they are mingled with the scented oil of baptism to be smeared in the shape of a cross on foreheads at Ash Wednesday. If that isn’t the human condition right there; the new birth of baptism mixed with the ashes of our sin and mortality.

What You Hold in Your Hand...

So what’s in a little palm frond? It is so much more than appears on Palm Sunday. It bears witness to the coherence and depth of the Biblical story. An embedded mark in the pages, by the Author of our salvation. The palm shows up through different writers over a span of more than one thousand years! It asks me to pay attention all the closer to the story, that perhaps the term inspired speaks even of the smallest details of Scripture. What’s in a little palm frond? In your hand you hold a sacrament of praise and thanksgiving that hearkens back to the dawn of the Law and forward to our Destiny in Heaven. Hosanna! —Jim

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