By Judy Steers
“They brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks on it and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ “
Luke 19 36-38
I’ll reveal my age perhaps when I relate the story of Palm Sunday in the church where I grew up. The day beforehand, the women of the altar guild would gather with their daughters (we were all between 9 and 15 years old) to practice the art of turning large bundles of green palm fronds into crosses. We would make probably a couple of hundred and put them in water to keep fresh until the Sunday morning. The best branch was saved to be displayed behind the cross at the high altar. The palms came to us in large shipping crates, wrapped in damp cloths. It felt like an honoured task, and I can still hear the satisfying scchickkk sound of the woody edges being split and peeled away from the supple inner part of the palm leaf which was pliable enough to bend and fold into shape. I had never of course seen a palm tree and it was mysterious and exotic to handle these stiff, pale green fronds. There is a huge nostalgia in this, and I taught my own children and many Sunday School kids over the years to make them.
One year, working as a Christian Education director, a small group in the parish was reflecting on how we retell the story of Easter week each year, and how to make this relevant in our context. As we made a close read of the text, I was struck by the fact that, in no part of scripture does it say that people spread or waved palm branches. None.
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21: 8-9)
A long time ago I swore off buying asparagus in November when I realized that it was being shipped from Chile and that sounded like a whole lot of carbon footprint that I could lessen by not buying vegetables from 9,000 km away. Yes I buy things from far away when they are not grown locally – pineapple or mango for instance, but it seems a bit indulgent to say ‘screw the planet, I can’t wait until May for asparagus’. So this got me thinking about palms.
What might have been the branches that people cut (‘from the fields’ or ‘from trees’) and spread on the road? What trees grow near Jerusalem? Most of the trees near Jerusalem are things like mulberry, pines, eucalypts and oaks. Yes there are date palms but you’d have to be both athletic and very adventurous to cut branches off a date palm! But that seems beside the point.
“Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11: 8-10)
The point is – why do we insist on using palms and importing them at high cost from Central America where they are rarely harvested in anything close to an ecological manner? Yes, you can look on line and find ‘sustainably sourced palms for palm Sunday’ but, really, why do we need them? Palms were waved as a sign of respect and honour of nobility in many ancient cultures, so I understand their connection and symbolism, but I think that might be lost in the contemporary habit of giving everyone in the congregation a dried leaf, folded into a cross that can make a lovely bookmark. And we can use other sources of ashes for the next year’s Ash Wednesday, could we not? Detractors might say “yes, but making palm crosses provides a source of income for small communities in developing countries”. Perhaps. Rather than stripping palm leaves from their land every year, what if people were allowed to use that land for sustainable farming and feeding their own community? It’s hard to acknowledge that our liturgical habits have a negative impact on other people’s way of life and local environment.
So – this is my personal bid to have it renamed “Coats and Branches Sunday”. At that parish that I mentioned, we decided to ask people to bring a branch from a tree or bush from home, and we cut some cedar sprigs from the hedges around the church for the choir to wave in procession (some of us lived in apartments). I suppose if we were being true to the text, we should have taken all our coats and laid them in the aisles of the church. Not sure how well that would have played out to have all the kids and the choir and clergy walk across everyone’s goretex or Sunday best coat. And really, I’m not sure if that would have been an appropriate symbol of the day anyway.
What I think we should get away from is the privileged habit of ordering single use palm branches for some faintly appropriative and ‘traditional’ practice that has liturgical and narrative relevance only in nostalgia. How much do we spend to ship them? Where are they coming from and who is growing them? I get it – this sounds hypocritical when I have just come from grocery shopping and bought bananas. Thinking about our communities’ ecological footprint however has to start somewhere, so perhaps we could give a second thought to how we are commemorating that Sunday before Easter. When they shouted “Hosanna” (meaning – ‘save us’) people lined the pathway with what they could find and what was close to hand. Cut branches if you must, but cut them from where you stand, not having them cut and sent to you by a Central American farmer.
Judy Steers lives in Guelph with her partner Sarah and their golden retriever on the ancestral lands of the Attawandaron people and the treaty lands and territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. Currently she is Partners and Programs animator at Five Oaks, a spiritual centre in SW Ontario. Her MA is on how the intersections of science and theology inform post-modern Christian education. Judy formerly was the director of the Ask & Imagine youth theology program, and worked at the Anglican Church of Canada national office in youth initiatives. She is looking forward to fresh asparagus in Ontario in a few weeks.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory. Occasional Wild Liturgy posts explore greening and re-wilding worship practice.