Palm Sunday, Year B
The Palm Sunday story in the Gospel of Mark says that
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. (Mark 11:8)
The Greek (from Thayer’s Greek Dictionary) is:
stiba¿ß; stibas, stibados; a. a spread or layer of leaves, reeds, rushes, soft leafy twigs, straw, etc., serving for a bed; b. that which is used in making a bed of this sort, a branch full of leaves, soft faliage
It is from the Gospel of John (the alternate lectionary Gospel reading for this Year B Palm Sunday), that we hear that these are palm branches, specifically: the work in John 12:13 (full alternate text is John 12:12-16) is:
ba¿iœon; baion (derived from the Egyptian) a palm-branch.
The Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 21:8) uses yet another word, meaning branch:
kla¿doß; klados, kladou; a. properly, a young, tender shoot, broken off for grafting. b. universally, a branch.
The gospel of Luke has no plants used in the procession, only cloaks laid down. (“Coats Sunday”?)
At the outdoor church of New Life Lutheran in Dripping Springs, Texas, we have, for the past few years, used a local native plant for our branches. Baccharis neglecta is known by many colorful names in English, including poverty weed, Roosevelt weed, New Deal weed, false willow, dry-land willow, broom weed, and, in Spanish, jara dulce (“sweet rock”). The baccharis family of perennial shrubs, commonly called “brooms,” are in the aster family and named after the Greek god of wine, Bacchus. ¡Que interesante!
Poverty weed is native to northern Mexico and to the Edwards Plateau region of Central and West Texas. In late Summer they have small white flowers that change into feathery white tassels in Fall. The small, narrow leaves are characterized as “partly evergreen.” The historical names refer to the Depression of the 1930s, when it was apparently planted to stop erosion caused by over-farming. I was unable to find much actual historical evidence of this planting, but it is definitely true that this plant thrives in disturbed soils, and in places converted from farmland to pasture, and it is an unusually hardy drought survivor. Their hardiness can make problematic for other plants trying to gain a foothold in a prairie. They are loved by some, hated by others: native, but aggressive.
Though it is true that palms and palm branches represent victory and royalty in some cultures, and there is a nice symbolism in that, there is something sweet about using a plant called poverty weed to mark the “triumphal entry” of Jesus, which was more of a political protest by the occupied people of Palestine.
It also bears marking that Christian communities all over the world have used native plants to celebrate this Sunday: olive branches in Italy and other olive-growing regions from early times (there is some indication that any evergreen might be used), willows or pussy willows in some parts of Northern and Eastern Europe, where it may be called “Willow Sunday.” Many countries use flowers to wave and scatter, the idea being to prepare a royal highway for an incoming king. Mark’s description of a bed of soft, leafy branches seems to fit this idea of a loving processional way.
I like the idea of using what is growing alongside the road. The people spread their cloaks and “branches they had cut in the fields.” They used what was at hand to create a sacred way. I love the idea of using what we have at hand, what we might reach for and cut down if we were preparing a way for Jesus in our place, on this Hill Country land, today. I love the idea of using a native plant, rather than using precious resources to import, or grow, palms.
In Spanish, this holiday is “Domingo de Ramos,” Branches Sunday, after the word for branches, ramas, used in Mark and Matthew, though, as in English, palmas is used in John. I think at New Life this year I’ll call it “Leafy Branches Sunday,” and think about using what is at hand to prepare a soft road for a king with a hard road ahead.
Carmen Retzlaff is the pastor of New Life Lutheran, an outdoor church in the Hill Country of Central Texas, ancestral home of the Tonkawa and Apache, part of the Lower Colorado River watershed atop the Trinity aquifer. She is a contributing editor to AllCreation.org, a living archive, documenting and drawing from diverse wisdoms in regards to today’s environmental challenges, and a partner in the Wild Church Network .
Laurel Dykstra is the curator of Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on ecological themes in the Revised Common Lectionary.