What do the Palms Say?

Posted on: April 14, 2019, by :

Does anyone have the foggiest idea why this Sunday before Easter is named as Palm Sunday? Where has the image of palm-branch waving crowds come from, given that palms are not specifically mentioned in the text? So why Palm Sunday? What do the palms say?

Interestingly, the palms point us to a moment in the history of the people of Israel that most of us know nothing about, the story of the Maccabee family, told not in our regular Bible but in The Apocrypha, a collection of inter-testamental writings. It is a story of courage, perseverance and hope as the Maccabees fought a 30-year guerrilla war to free Jerusalem from the occupying Syrian forces. The father and four of his five sons perished in the struggle, but in 141 BCE the fifth son, Simon, led his army into Jerusalem to reclaim the city and ‘the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, wit harps and cymbals, with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.’ [1 Maccabees 13:51]

And every year on Palm Sunday Christians all over the world re-enact this triumphant procession with Jesus cast in the lead role! Quite weird really when you know the history! So why? Why did the Gospel writers deliberately and beautifully craft their story to parallel the Maccabean victory march? Perhaps the Gospel writers were reminding their readers that, although their story of the life of Jesus was about to take a turn for the worst, they should take courage, persevere and read right to the end of the story in the hope that things might just turn out OK. Courage, perseverance and hope: these are important life themes not just for the Maccabees or the early Christians but for all people in all times. Because life doesn’t always go to plan, doesn’t always go smoothly, and without courage, perseverance and hope we might be overwhelmed, might despair, might think the struggle is hopeless. This prayer from Henri Nouwen captures its well:

Dear God, today I thought of the words of Vincent van Gogh: ‘It is true there is an ebb and flow, but the sea remains the sea.’ You are the sea. Although I experience many ups and downs in my emotions and often feel great shifts and changes in my inner life, you remain the same. Your sameness is not the sameness of a rock, but the sameness of a faithful lover. There are days of sadness and days of joy; there are feelings of guilt and feelings of gratitude; there are moments of failure and moments of success; but all of them are embraced by your unwavering love.

My temptation is to doubt your love, to think of myself as beyond the reach of your love, to remove myself from the healing radiance of your love. To do these things is to move into the darkness of despair. O Lord, sea of love and goodness, let me not fear too much the storms and winds of life; remind me that there is ebb and flow but that the sea remains the sea.

There is no certainty that my life will be any easier in the years ahead, or that my heart will be any calmer. But there is the certainty that you are with me and that your love is always for me.  O Lord, give me the courage, hope, confidence and peace to travel the ups and downs, the ebb and flow, hand in hand with you.  Amen.


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