Palms in Liturgy: Lessons for Prayer and the Christian Life

By Lawrence Bausch

One of the things we will miss this Sunday by being unable to gather for Mass is the distribution of palms.  After their use during a joyful Procession, we typically take them home and put them in a visible place, where they will remain until we take them back to church to be burned to make the ashes which will be distributed on Ash Wednesday.  Since we are unable to come together this week, it might be helpful to meditate on the mystery and meaning of palms as we use them in our Church.

In the Old Testament, palm branches are mentioned regarding their use in constructing booths for the annual Feast of Booths (Sukkot). This practice recalls the 40 years of the Exodus, when the Jews had left their homes to trustingly follow God (Leviticus 23:40; Nehemiah 8:15).   In the New Testament, John’s Gospel singles out palm branches as those to be laid before Jesus’ path as he entered Jerusalem (John 12:13). They are mentioned one more time in a fascinating scene in Revelation where, after a vision of the 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel, the seer saw “a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).  In the context of these references, we can say that palm branches were used as a sign of trust in God’s providential guidance (OT), to praise Jesus as he entered the Holy City (John), and will be used to worship him eternally in his eternal Kingdom (Revelation).

Ashes are found in two primary contexts in the Old Testament.  One type of occurrence concerns sacrifices or ‘burnt offerings’.  Animal sacrifices began when God provided Abraham with a ram to offer in place of his son Isaac (Genesis 22). In general, sacrifices of any kind are representative of the person or people making the offering. Throughout the Old Testament we read about ‘burnt offerings’ being offered, and many later became ritualized for use in the Temple.  Included among many instructions regarding these sacrifices are guidelines pertaining to what to do with the ashes which result from them (cf. Leviticus 4:12). 

The earliest and most frequent use of ashes in Scripture pertains to penance and humility.   When Abraham appealed to God for mercy upon Sodom, he acknowledges that he is “but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). After God appeared to Job and questioned him concerning his demand for an explanation regarding his horrific suffering, he prayed, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  Jesus uses this same image, quoted in Matthew and Luke: “Woe to you, Chora’zin! Woe to you, Bethsa’ida! For it the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in dust and ashes (Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13).” In Matthew, he says these words in the context of the debate about the mission and role of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:7-24), while in Luke it follows his commissioning of the 70 (Luke 10:1-16). 

Palm branches are offered in praise; ashes are received in penance.  We receive palms in the context of praise (many churches sing “All glory, laud, and honor, to thee, Redeemer, King!” during the palm procession); we receive their ashes in the context of penitence (as they are placed on our forehead we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return”).  These separate practices are united by the common use of palms.  This link may be useful as we consider our life in Christ this Holy Week.  How are our praises of God and submission to his will for daily living limited by our “unruly wills and affections”? As many have pointed out, our Liturgical link on Palm Sunday between the Triumphal Procession and the subsequent reading of the Passion Gospel, the crowd crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” probably included some who, days later, were shouting “Crucify him!” We intuitively recognize this possibility because of the inconsistency of devotion in our own lives.  At the same time, our ability to praise and serve our Lord beyond our sinfulness can encourage us to see that God accepts even our stumbling steps towards him as we respond to his grace.  God does not scold us for our stumbles any more than a parent does when their young child is learning to walk.

This strange season of physical separation can be a graceful time to invite the Lord to come more intimately into our lives and reveal those elements in our lives that need his graceful help, as well as those upon which we can see his joy.  We can use this time in deep intercession: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:14-15).

Fr. Lawrence Bausch is President of FIFNA

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