Palms of Rejoicing, Ashes of Sorrow

My name is Tamara. The Hebrew origin for my name translates to “palm tree” or “palm branch.” My parents reminded me of the meaning each year when my father, a pastor, found a way to insert my name into his annual Palm Sunday sermon. When he performed my wedding ceremony, he blessed me again referring to me as a “fruitful bough raised to Jesus.” For this reason I’ve never been able to imagine the gospel account of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem without imagining myself as one of the palm-waving worshipers.
It wasn’t until I began observing the season of Lent about seven years ago that it occurred to me that, if I am a palm branch raised, then I must also be a palm branch laid at the feet of the donkey-riding Messiah, and trampled under the press of the hopeful crowd.
If I am a palm branch raised, then I must also be a palm branch laid at the feet of the donkey-riding Messiah.
For centuries the church has collected the branches waved in worship on Palm Sunday, burned them, and set aside the ashes to mark foreheads with the charry cross on the next Ash Wednesday. Just as the verdant branches returned to arid desert soil and became dust again, so I am made of dust and to dust I shall return. I am both the fruitful living palm and the dying, dusty palm. I am a palm branch raised to Jesus, crushed under the weight of the King of Glory, and awaiting resurrection. Much of my life I have resisted the crush and weight of the Suffering Servant. I’ve only wanted to wave a Hosanna, but the way of Christ only leads to triumphant resurrection by way of the cross.
This is why the Church Fathers insisted that we spend the long weeks of Lent remembering our mortality and sinfulness.
I wasn’t attending a liturgical church the first year I participated in an Ash Wednesday service, so I found the closest church that offered a service for the beginning of Lent. My sister-in-law joined me, and we decided to walk into the midday Mass at a Catholic church around the corner from my home. Intrigued, I watched the priest thumb black grit onto the foreheads of my neighbors. Each sign of the cross from the priest’s hand left a visible symbol of invisible sin, death, and decay. I saw a young mother offer her baby’s forehead to the priest. It seemed so morbid: where I saw innocence and health, she was willing to see the shadow of death, the suffering we face, and that Christ took on himself. I quickly ducked my head to look away from that pink forehead blotched with an intentional reminder of sin and death.
I am not alone in my desire to avoid the way of suffering Jesus models. While it’s not surprising humans try to avoid this reality, it is peculiar that those who claim to be his followers would try so hard to forget the frailty of the humanity our God embodied in the Incarnation. We prefer our own wellness to the wounded man Jesus.
We prefer our own wellness to the wounded man Jesus.
Many Christian congregations, like the Jerusalem crowd, prefer to worship a version of God who is victorious in their own terms rather than the incarnate Messiah who took on frail, feeble flesh in order to redeem humanity. But worshiping only in the triumphal entries and beside the empty tomb, and not at Calvary, hinders our ability to enter fully into living, breathing, resurrected worship. We think our mass-marketed worship will drown out the hungry rumbles in our stomachs, the creaking of our broken hearts, and the rattling breath of death. We try to spiritualize our fear, thinking that if we ignore death and suffering, they will just go away. We will not need to be saved.
But the young mother at my first Ash Wednesday service knew better, and so did the one who laid her baby in Bethlehem dirt.

In the years since that Ash Wednesday, I’ve experienced the ways that the Lenten discipline of fasting allow us to connect tangibly with Christ who, after his baptism, entered the desert for forty days of fasting and prayer. Spiritual disciplines and liturgical observances do not gain us favor with God, but they do bring us closer in touch with our own human frailties. Lent is a forty-day lesson in what it means to be cursed by death and decay. From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, we follow Christ as he makes his way to the cross. We recognize and mourn the curse of sin and death that has separated man from God, even as we are invited to carry our cross and follow Christ on the road of suffering.

Which leads me back to my original discovery: I want to save my hosannas and palm-waving for a Christ who would ride a battle-ready steed, and not the colt of a donkey. I want to be the living palm, verdant and lush, and not the dying palm, crushed and trampled like the crucified Christ.
And yet that is the only path to resurrection and life. When we say Jesus is the only way, this is what we mean. There is no short-cut to glory without the path of the weighty cross. In the years since that first Ash Wednesday service, I’ve discovered a paradox: there’s joy in the way of the cross. Fasting, almsgiving, and repentance lead to more peace, joy, and hope than I could’ve anticipated.
Lent has provided a sturdier foundation for all the grief I’ve carried in my own life.
I’ve begun to consider my relationships through this lens; those who welcomed me into their own suffering and shared mine have become my dearest, most trusted friends. Listening to my friends’ stories of mourning has become part of my regular Lenten practice. As I hear about illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, death of loved ones, and death of dearly-held dreams, I grow stronger and more dependent on the one pierced and crushed for not only our own trespasses and sins, but also the ways others have trespassed and sinned against us. Next to the words of Christ, their stories have helped, more than anything else, to form my understanding of the God who draws near to the suffering and makes beauty out of ashes.

As I write, my family is navigating our own labyrinth of hardship, illness, and need. In between paragraphs, I’m interrupted by phone calls, text updates, and questions I don’t know how to answer.

Yesterday morning, a grey February day in our city along the Long Island Sound, my daughter brought me a single leaf of a palm branch that she’d found on the street where she’d parked the car.
“Look what I found!” She handed me the long, pale green leaf. What was a palm branch doing on the street in the winter in Connecticut almost two months before Palm Sunday?
“It’s a living palm. God told me it was for you.” I thanked her and set it aside.
As the phone continued to ring and the hardships piled up throughout the afternoon, I moved away from the keyboard and picked up the leafy stem, waving it weakly over my head. A small current of tears trailed down my face as I began to pray the only words I could muster, “Hosanna, Jesus! Save us now!”
Written by Tamara Hill Murphy.

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