A palm frond was waiting for me when Kate and I arrived home last night from the road trip, thanks to my thoughtful friends who picked up an extra one at the Matins for Palm Sunday service I’d missed. But I forgot to take it to church this morning, so it remains where they saved it, on the windowsill above my kitchen sink.
During the whole of Divine Liturgy today almost everyone held a palm branch, even the clergy and choir, while carrying their usual books or babies, etc. The little girls all know how to weave the leaflets into a sort of mat. There were enough fronds for me to have a second one, and I was handed a branch of pussy willows, too. I tried to hold it alongside my palm, but the soft willow buds one by one were sliced off when they slid between the sharp leaflets of the palm frond, so that the floor around me became littered with them.
We were remembering the first time that Jesus was hailed by people carrying palm branches, a symbol of victory and peace. We learned in the homily this morning that it was common for more than a quarter-million people to be in Jerusalem for Passover, and these people had heard about Lazarus being raised from the dead. Suddenly Jesus was acclaimed by multitudes — and children are particularly mentioned as joining in with shouting — who spread tree branches and their coats on the streets before him to ride on; it was quite the scene.
But Christ didn’t come to be enthroned as an earthly leader, as most of the crowd assumed, or to rule as they do, by external power. He wants to deliver us from the death in our souls and to rule by His Holy Spirit in our hearts. St. Andrew of Crete (8th century) encourages us to spread before the Lord not branches which wither, but ourselves, “clothed in his grace, clothed completely in Him.”
When it was time to take my goddaughter Mary up for communion, I left my branches on a bench, because Mary is a wiggly child and I didn’t trust myself to securely hold her and them at the same time. Keeping her in my arms, I picked up the palm frond again when we made our procession out the doors and around the church singing:
By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion,
Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God.
Like the children with the palms of victory
We cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death,
“Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!”
Little Mary was happy to hold the branch while I carried her, and to wave it around as we walked in the pleasant air, passing under wisteria blooms. Even outdoors on the porch, giant palm branches were decorating the pillars. Inside, green altar cloths were temporarily covering the purple, but later in the day they were removed. Tomorrow we enter Holy Week.
The fact of Lazarus’s being raised from the dead, and its reminder of Christ’s resurrection that we will be celebrating in just a few days, the experience of His grace in which we are clothed — all these realities will sustain us during the many services and the heart preparations of this week. The joy of the Lord will be our strength.