Laying Down the Palm Branch

April 5, 2020

Palm Sunday is usually one of the most attended masses of the year, partly because of the symbol of the palm branch. However, due to COVID precautions, many are unable to gather for this solemn day of worship this year. Despite these unusual circumstances, it is extraordinarily important to understand the symbolism and underlying expression of the palm branch, so that the lay faithful of the Church may still continue to observe this day in “spirit and truth” given that our ordinary acts of worship are not accessible to us.

The Gospel story about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–11, Mark 11:1–11, Luke 19:28–44, and John 12:12–19) is how the people of Jerusalem who had heard about a rabbi and a prophet that they heard even raised someone from the dead was now coming to Jerusalem. Jesus the Nazarene was the kristos or anointed one for whom they and their fathers before them had been waiting. They welcomed this man as the foretold King of Israel that would establish forever the throne of David and free them from foreign influence including that of the Roman Empire under which they were already subject.

To welcome Him, they pulled branches off of the trees, and their cloaks laying them down on the road for Jesus’ donkey to step upon as he rode in humbly as this poor and homeless king. The uproar and praise from the people of Jerusalem was so raucous that it worried the Pharisees. Rome was not kind to uprisings from within the empire. They were so worried that they even asked Jesus to quiet them down. But Jesus replied that such praise was fitting in ways that even the people praising Jesus could not fathom. Jesus was more than just a wise teacher and a holy man. He is Holiness itself and the fount of all holiness. And, as we will see by the end of that week in Jerusalem he is indeed the king of all martyrs.

The white-robed army of martyrs holding palm branches

The palm branch is a sign of victory. This kingly welcome was for a king triumphant, conquering, and victorious in battle. Until this point, victory was understood in terms of war and battle with weapons of the world, Jesus had conquered sin by forgiving his people, and conquering ignorance and sinful folly through his teaching, the final enemy was now death itself. The palm branch marked the path, preparing the way for the Christ as he entered the city of David and the city of “New Peace” (Jerusalem means “new peace”). It is here that the eschatological moment of the kingdom of God would begin its conquest of the whole world.

St. Philomena, Martyr

There is a deeper meaning to the palm branch of which we should be aware. In Christian iconography, martyrs hold a palm branch as exemplified by the picture of St. Philomena. Like palm branches, martyrs lay down their lives to prepare the way for Christ and the Church. As Tertullian writes, “the blood of Christians is seed” (The Apology, Chapter 50). He writes that where Christians are mowed down, they multiply as the word, “martyr” means “witness.” The blood of martyrs, prepares the land on which it falls for Church to spring up because such blood is dear to God. These witnesses who loved God more than their lives, witness to the importance of the gospel and are ultimately victorious in their battle with the vicissitudes of this world. What does this mean for the lay Catholic today?

All Christians are called to martyrdom, or to “witness” to the gospel. However, there are two kinds of martyrdom: crimson and white. Crimson martyrdom is what is typically thought of when we speak of martyrdom. To be killed in persecution for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, while relatively rare, is still a reality today. It is ultimately for those whom God calls by the circumstances of their life and where they live (and we pray for such Christians especially in China, the Holy Land, and in Islamic countries).

The vast majority of Christians are called to a white martyrdom where; for the duration of their lives, however long or short it may be, Christians are laying down their lives daily to prepare for the triumphal entry of Christ wherever they are. This is the ordinary witness of life-long charity. Every moment of true charity–divine love of God and neighbor–is a moment pregnant with the kingdom of God. As Pope Francis is so apt to highlight, every day, especially during this time of sheltering at home, there are countless numbers of unseen heroes in parents, teachers, fast-food workers, healthcare professionals, business owners and so on, who are committing these acts of heroism whether they are seen or not. And seen or not, such actions lay the foundation for God to come among us especially now in an extraordinary way since masses and public liturgies are not possible in many places. Each such act contributes to the one profound act of the white martyrdom, witnessing to the conquering power of Christ’s divine mercy.

Many of us will not be able to hold a palm branch in our hand today and lay one upon our home prayer tables or family mantles; however, palm branch or not, God desires the “spiritual worship” and sacrifice of our lives. Christ laid down His life to win for us a divine life sprouted by the waters of baptism. The aim of for Christians today is to express what the palm branches symbolize–us laying down our lives to witness to the one true king one ordinary act of love at a time.

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