“Truly this man was the Son of God!”"(Mark 15:39)
Palm Sunday! I sprang out of bed and was out my front door faster than my usual pace this morning. It was Holy Week! We live for this week! Then I reached the entrance of our church. There was a line that came out of our foyer and wrapped around to the sidewalk. It was 10 minutes before Mass and people were just standing there. I approached the poor ushers who were handing out what seemed to be a dwindling number of palms. No one had gone to get the palms reserved for that Mass. People would not go into church without them. Some looked at me with very stern faces. One lady said that she had never experienced this in 40 years at this parish. An usher had forgotten to get the 1000 or so palm branches for this Mass and people were angry. Mass could not, would not, should not begin if they did not have a palm in their hand.
This isn't just my parish. This had been my experience in all the parishes I have served. Before our 12:30p and 7:30p Mass another priest had to tell the people waiting to go in to stand back to let the people from the previous Mass come out. And once the palm branches were being distributed, you would think that our ushers were handing out $100 bills. I know I've made that analogy before, but as every year passes it gnaws at me even more. I tweeted out this afternoon: "Oh if only our people went crazy for the Eucharist as they do for palms, what a Church we would have!" If only they would hunger for that Living Bread as much as they do for these branches. This is why our Lord cried over Jerusalem, and lamented over those who just wanted signs. He wanted to draw all of them and all of us in to a deeper relationship with him. Sometimes I wonder if the palms are an obstacle to that relationship being deepened as I look out at the assembly and see so many people busily making their crosses. Someday I tell you...someday...we will finally get it
The palms help us to commemorate that triumphant day in which Jesus rode into Jerusalem to exultant praise. "Hosanna to the Son of David," the people yelled. And then we continue the Palm Sunday liturgy by reading the account of Our Lord's passion, and the narrative bookends the liturgy as it concludes with the centurion professing "Truly this man was the Son of God!" Both are praises to our Lord, but both are done at different times and under different circumstances.
So what do we make of these palms that I may or may not have called religious souvenirs during my last Mass? They are not souvenirs, but are indeed far less important to our celebration of Palm Sunday than the Divine Mystery that takes place on that altar every single Sunday. For what we give every Sunday from that altar is far more precious than branches or ashes. And this is what these palms should remind us of: that one minute we can be singing the Lord's praises and the next shouting for him to be crucified. But that's not where we want to be this Holy Week. We have the opportunity to be reconciled to Him through confession so that we are truly singing his praises and those branches then become for us a reminder of Christ's triumph over sin and death. A reminder that we need to see beyond the happy, holy chaos of this day, and simply see what that centurion saw at the foot of the cross: a man who loved to the extreme, a man who gave his last drop of blood for you and me, a man who challenges us to confront the scandal of the cross with eyes of hope and faith that leave us no choice but to exclaim, "Truly this man is the Son of God!"