Homily, Palm Sunday

Before we continue into the Passion Gospel, I want to offer a brief reflection on the Palm Gospel. Why are people waving palms at Jesus? Why are we waving palms at Jesus? 

I don’t know when it became a custom to cut palm branches and wave them as part of a celebratory procession. But it’s described quite clearly in the first book of Maccabees, written maybe 150 years before the time of Jesus: “[The people entered Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments… because a great enemy had been crushed.” (1 Macc 13:51). And then in Second Maccabees, the people use palms to honor their hero: “Carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to [the one who had purified their holy place].” (2 Macc 10:7). 

That all sounds a lot like what happens in the Palm Gospel, right? So: it’s a thing people did, to celebrate a triumph or honor an important leader. And we know from the writings of a Christian pilgrim named Egeria that by the 380s or so, Christians in Jerusalem were observing Palm Sunday with a procession waving palms. So, fairly early on, the church started to not just tell these holy stories at this special time of year, but to act them out, to some extent. 

Why palms? The simple answer is: Palms were around. There are various kinds of palm trees that grow all over the world. (Did you know that palms, as a family, are very old, and that palms are more closely related to grass than to other trees?) 

But you don’t see a lot of palms in Wisconsin, right? Generally speaking, palms like warmer places. 

So what happened when Christianity moved out of warmer parts of the world, to places where palms didn’t grow… and before you could order palms shipped to your church in Wisconsin? 

A friend shared some research on Facebook a few weeks back that got me thinking. I learned that in Ireland, where palms were not readily available, branches from local trees like yew, fir, spruce, and cypress were used. Those are all conifers – probably because in Ireland as in Wisconsin, Easter often arrives before our deciduous trees have leafed out! 

Palm Sunday became known as “Yew Sunday”… and one historian recalled that in his childhood in Ireland in the 1830s, yew was always called “palm.” That seems to have been true in parts of England as well. 

In other parts of Europe, Christians used willow wands instead of palm branches, when decorating for Palm Sunday. One source from 1530 describes “Palm” as “the yellow that groweth on wyllowes.” 

Has anybody ever seen a pussy willow, the kind of willow with the cute little gray fuzzy buds on it?… In some parts of Germany that was called “palmkätzchen,” meaning “palm kitten”! 

And in Finland, on Palm Sunday, children dress up as Easter Witches and go around to houses in their neighborhood trading decorated willow branches for candy! How does that sound?… 

This is all very charming but I think there’s something deeper here. The only really honest Palm Sunday I’ve ever had is the year Phil and I were in Uganda, and people WERE just cutting palm branches from the palm trees surrounding the church – as the crowd outside Jerusalem would have done, in Jesus’ time. 

I wonder if we went wrong somehow when we all started importing palms from Florida or South America for our Palm Sunday observances – spending money and resources to bring in something that doesn’t belong here. As if what kind of branches we were waving was important to how well we tell this story. 

Some churches have shifted away from palms to use whatever is local, and it’s not a new thought for me either. But I’m thinking about it a little more deeply this year, for both ecological and theological reasons. 

Ecologically speaking: It would make a very small difference if St. Dunstan’s stopped ordering palms that have to be shipped and refrigerated, using fossil fuels, to get them into our hands. But it would make a difference. 

Theologically speaking… It seems to me that when we go out of our way to use palms in our enactment of this story, we are treating them as a prop, like in the world of theater. When you’re preparing to perform a play, if the play calls for a sword, or a lion, or a palm, you come up with a sword, or a lion, or a palm. (Though if this were REALLY theater, we’d probably make some nice sturdy cardboard palms we could use again and again!) 

But what we do on Palm and Passion Sunday isn’t theater. Even though we have people reading lines, telling a story together with their voices – even acting out parts of it. 

It is close to theater. But it’s something else – in ways I’m struggling to put into words. Partly it’s that we are all participants, not audience, even though only some people read the voices. Partly it’s because this isn’t a story that some of us offer to others; it’s a story that belongs to all of us, that encompasses all of us. Partly it’s that, while many kinds of stories carry deep truth, this story makes a particular claim to truth, for us – on us. 

So. I wonder. I wonder if we would be entering the story more fully by using sprays of the yew and cypress and spruce that grow gladly on our church grounds. Maybe we could develop a custom of a spring pruning, the week before Palm Sunday.

Listen: If you’re thinking, but I *like* the palms, please know: I don’t want to shame anybody for feeling some resistance to this idea. I decided to order the palms, this year – and every previous year!  

And I understand the appeal of tradition, our attachment to what is familiar, what reminds us of childhood. I actually quite miss the long palms we used to order before we, along with many other churches, shifted to fair trade eco-palms a few years ago. I have happy memories of folding and plaiting those palms during long Passion Gospel readings. 

If this were a light decision, we would have made it already. 

But maybe we can think about it, today and over the coming months, and decide together before the turning of the year brings Palm Sunday around again, whether we’d like to root our annual encounter with this story in our ecology and climate, our place, our lives. To incarnate the story a notch more authentically. 

Because this isn’t just a matter of placing an order, or not. When I was talking about this a couple of weeks ago with Father John, he pointed out that when churches use the plants that grow nearby, then those plants carry that meaning for them all the time. Maybe we won’t start calling our arbor vitae trees “palms,” but maybe they will remind us of Palm Sunday, the things we do and say and reflect on, today and every year. And Father John reminded me that we have a word for that – for when something ordinary that we can see and touch every day, like the water of baptism or the bread and wine of Eucharist, becomes a container for the holy. We call it a sacrament.

I’d like to call this holy gathering onward into the gospel of the Passion. 


Shout out to my cousin Trelawney for sharing this wonderful research! Here are some of her sources…