Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, April 2, 2012

PALM SUNDAY: Significance of Palms at Holy Week

Fred Vergara (Sermon at St. Michael & All Angels, Seaford, New York, 4/1/2012)
“Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Mark 11:7-10). 

A story is told of an atheist who filed a discrimination suit against the state. He complained that all the major religions in the U.S. have holidays but not one for him. Christians have Christmas and Easter and Jews have Hanukah and Passover but not one for those who say there is no God. The judge who received the complaint readily explained: “Sir, your case has no merit. First, the word holiday originally comes from the words “holy day.” Second, you actually have a holiday.  According to Psalm 14:1 “Only a fool would say ‘there is no God!’” So you actually have April 1st –April Fool’s Day---as your holiday. Case dismissed!”

I think it is interesting that this Palm Sunday 2012 also falls on April 1st, so this is a great time for the fools and the “fools for Christ” (1st Corinthians 4:10) to be together.  So Happy Palm Sunday and Happy Fools’ Day! I think I’ve covered everyone.

Palm Sunday - Start of Holy Week
The liturgy of the Palm Sunday begins with the blessing of the palms. True to prophecy (Zechariah 9:9) that the Messiah-King would ride on a donkey, the event commemorates the “triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem.” Along the way, people (men, women and children) rejoiced and spread out garments and palm branches and waved palm leaves shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” Palm Sunday begins our weekly celebration of the Passion Story of Jesus. What is the significance of the Palms in the context of our life as Christians?

A.    Palm as Symbol of a Victory
Among the Jews, a palm branch is a symbol of rejoicing. As soon as news of triumph is announced, people would cut palm branches as signs of a victory party. In Roman culture, a palm branch is also a symbol of victory.  It is no wonder that in welcoming the entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, he would be met with a great throng of people waving palm branches. They were Jews living as colonials of the Roman Empire.

It is said that the early Christians used the palm branch to symbolize the victory of the faithful over the enemies of their souls. Christian martyrs were usually shown holding a palm frond as a holy attribute, representing the victory of spirit over flesh. In some of the Christian tombs or catacombs, aside from the ichtus (fish symbol of Christ), a picture of a palm would also be there to signify that a martyr was buried there.

Of course, victory in Christian life is spiritually discerned. We are not talking about military conquests or socio-economic triumphs. We are talking about the triumph of the spirit against the assaults of the enemies, spoken in our baptism as “the world, the flesh and the devil.” It is a renunciation of all that hinders us from realizing our authentic selves as “imago Dei” (image of God), human beings who live and believe in God.

B.     Palm as Symbol of Life
A palm trees (tamar in Hebrew) represents survival and life since it is one of the few trees to grow in arid environments. Palm trees in the desert means either an oasis or water below the surface. In Palestine, there are many kinds of palm trees. There is the coconut palm tree, the ornamental palm tree and of course, the ever present palm dates. In many communities, the red date palm trees line up the streets, surround the village and are a great source of livelihood.

As a symbol of life, the towering palm trees also symbolize the pride and the strength of the community to withstand the assaults against their very survival. Ahmad Abu Samra, a Palestinian, recently reported that in the Palestine of today, the Israel Army have been destroying palm trees in order to starve the residents of Deir Al Balah so that they would leave the area.  Over the years of Intifada (Palestinian uprising against the Israelites who occupied their lands), Israelite bulldozers have leveled their farms and destroyed dozens of palm trees. In the spirit of dignity and defiance, the local residents said, "This will not break our will. Our palm trees will remain tall and as long as there is breath in our bodies, we will plant them again and water them with our blood like those before us.”

C.     Palm as Symbol of Righteousness
The palm tree is unique among the other trees in that the higher it grows up; the deeper its roots go down. Its imposing leaves, which are the heart of the palm tree, are fresh green or white and often remain unchanged over time. For me, it aptly describes our Christian journey to spiritual maturity. The higher we go in our spiritual lives, the deeper our roots in Christ shall be. To paraphrase theologian, Paul Tillich, God is both the Height of Meaning and the “Ground of Being.”

An ancient art often depict Jesus in heaven among palms. In the Old Testament, “palm fronds” (fern-like branches) were associated with rejoicing after the harvest on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40; Nehemiah 8:15). In the New Testament, the redeemed are “standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. ...wearing white robes and...holding palm branches in their hands.”(Revelation 7:9).The palm branches therefore remind us of our righteousness in Christ, given to us, as a gift at baptism, in Christ’s death and resurrection. We are made righteous by the Blood of the Lamb.

Accordingly, the righteous are likened to a palm tree. The Psalmist says, "The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree" (Ps 92: 12). Like the palm tree, a Christian is continually growing up in spiritual height but likewise extending the roots deeply, strongly and humbly. In this Holy Week, may we learn from the ways of the Palm Tree, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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