Words on the Word

Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-7: For my part, I made no resistance.
Philippians 2:6-11: Christ Jesus emptied himself and became as men are.
John 12:12-16: His disciples did not understand at first.

We are used to relating to the world through symbols. What is a symbol? A dictionary would say it is ‘a thing representing another thing’. A red cross is a symbol of an aid agency, a bulbous ‘M’ of a burger bar. This is symbolism at its most basic. To raise the level a little, think of a nation’s flag. The flag is not the nation; but it does represent it in a way that makes it present, somehow: that is why there is a procession of flags at the Olympic Games; it is why we revere the flag and make sure it does not touch the ground, is not left out overnight. Theology takes the representational value of symbols further, raising it to a sublime level. In Scripture, the burning bush symbolises God: God is truly manifest in it, and so the very ground on which the bush stands is holy. Or think of Jerusalem, David’s City. Built as a rampart around the temple, God’s earthly dwelling place, the city comes to stand as a symbol of the kingdom of heaven, where God will be all in all. The Church’s mysteries perfect this sacramental logic. Baptismal water, a symbol of God’s saving grace, is empowered to put that grace to work: a baptised person is no longer what he or she was before; a change of nature has occurred. At Mass, through the invocation of a priest consecrated for that purpose, to speak those transformatory words, ordinary bread and wine make Christ’s sacrifice of love so uncannily present that, when they are held up to us as his Body and Blood, we can truly say, ‘Amen’.

In today’s liturgy, two symbols are especially present: the palm and the olive. Branches of each are brandished by the crowds in triumphal salute as Christ makes ponderous progress into Jerusalem, riding on an ass’s foal. The palm and the olive: what do they tell us? You may object to too much preacherly fuss of interpretation. Aren’t olives and palms just what happens to grow along Palestinian roads, the stuff most readily at hand? Were you to say this, you would be right. Still, try asking an Irishman who, on 17 March, appears with a shamrock why has has adorned himself with cattle food; try asking a veteran with a poppy in his buttonhole why he picked a weed from a railway line instead of getting himself a decent red carnation. Certain ordinary things take on extraordinary sense in given situations, at set times. We must be able to grasp that sense.

The waving of palm branches is a liturgical rite in Israel’s ordo of celebrations. The Book of Leviticus decrees that the people, on the first day of Tabernacles, should take ‘the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and […] rejoice before the Lord.’ During seven days they would leave their houses and dwell in provisional huts to remember the forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. They would recall God’s care during their journey home from exile. Since the festival occurred ‘in the seventh month’, at harvest time, it acquired, too, a tenor of thanksgiving. The manna in the desert and the ordinary fruits of the earth, onions and grapes: both were seen as expressions of God’s sweet providence, proof that his promise fails not. The feast of Tabernacles stands for fulfilment, ingathering, completion. The palm is a fitting emblem. It is the tree of the oasis, a sign of the refreshment and rest for which the desert-wanderer yearns. It promises water, shade, and comfort. To wave a palm branch is to celebrate homecoming, to savour release. When, on Palm Sunday, the crowds spontaneously reenact this ritual, we learn much about their inmost aspirations. They see Jesus as their champion and guide. They pin their hope on him. So do we. May the palms we wave transmit their message to our hearts, that they, too, vibrate with exultation!

Palms aren’t the only trees in evidence, however. ‘The children of the Hebrews’ carried olive branches also, no less symbolically charged. When, in Exodus, provisions are made for God’s tabernacle, the tent where he would ‘live among men’, the divine presence was indicated by a perpetual light—even as it is before our own tabernacle, here in church. The Israelites were asked to bring ‘olive oil, crushed for the light, so that the lamp may always burn.’ Now, the sages of Israel compared the olive to the Jewish people. Why? A third-century rabbi, Joshua ben Levi, explains: ‘Just as an olive is first bitter, then sweet, so Israel suffers in the present but great good is stored up for them in the time to come. And just as the olive only yields its oil by being crushed so Israel fulfils [its potential] in Torah only when pressed by suffering.’ Today we accompany Jesus, the Light of the world, about to be crushed so that his radiance, eclipsed for an instant on Good Friday, may shine for ever. With olive branches in our hands, we acclaim him. At the same time, we prophesy what he must undergo. And we profess our readiness to follow him. For light to shine, something has to be crushed: that’s how it is. As we enter Holy Week, let us offer our lives as fuel for the flame of God’s love, that it may burn brightly, even in our present darkness.