Matthew 21:1-11 – Palm Sunday – for Sunday, April 9, 2016
“Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road.” (Matthew 21:8)
But first there were palms. Open. Fingers spread. Waving.
With those palms waving, did hoarse voices bellow, “Look here! Remember me, Jesus?” Or were the loud words, “God bless you! Thank you, Jesus!” Wouldn’t that second variation be closer to the Biblical Hosanna?
Hosanna! Palm Sunday!
Did those witnessing Jesus’ arrival wave leafy branches or palm leaves? (Only John referenced palm trees, the—in Greek—phoinix)? Some, according to several Gospels, placed cloaks on the road. Whether it was a few supporters or a rambunctious crowd, the Gospel writers depicted the greeters honoring Jesus. However, the honor was tempered by humility. There’s that colt he’s astride rather than a stallion girded for war. And the cloaks on the ground were, well, clothes still sweaty and dirty from wear. Nothing fancy. No red carpets. No paparazzi.
When imagining the scene, I envision palm leaves waving that look suspiciously like palms growing near my home. Maybe I’m imagining the popular Chilean Wine Palm? We have lots of those in California’s Central Valley. In Jesus’ day, in and around Jerusalem, there were only palm trees with dates. If you’ve been to Hawaii, perhaps you associate palms with coconuts. No coconuts in King David’s Holy City!
Which is fine. All across Christendom, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, the branches used will be local, mail-ordered, or substituted by paper replicas crafted by Sunday school classes.
But I also think of my hand on Palm Sunday. Your hand. All hands. How very handy, eh?
When picturing Jesus astride a colt headed toward Jerusalem’s walls, I also see human palms waving. They are open, with fingers spread. There is dirt embedded in the fingernails and calluses harden the skin. On some, digits are missing. On others, arthritis twists the fingers like intertwined ivy. The children’s palms have soft, pink flesh.
Here Jesus comes. The arms rise. Palms wave.
How much we use our palms: every day in every possible way.
We shake a hand; our palms are wide open, expressing the ancient custom of revealing that no threatening weapon is held.
Two millennia ago or today, children and adults count by using fingers. Palms open. One. Two. Three.
For many, the tradition of love means that a rounded piece of metal is positioned on the “ring finger.” There, open your hand. See!
Two hands come together, fingers overlapping, and the “people” on the inside or the “steeple” on the outside can be cleverly created.
With a darkened room, a bit of light, and a wall to cast shadows on, open hands help tell stories. Shadow puppets with flying birds and dancing rabbits.
The beggar stretches out a hand.
High five and we celebrate.
The open palm cradles a child’s head at baptism. Cups a piece of bread at communion. Tenderly washes a disciple’s foot.
It’s not all good, of course. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus implored. And what was that other cheek turning toward? An open hand hard against flesh. Or worse.
But what about when closing our palms?
Why do we make fists? I watch people when they are frustrated. Clenched fists. I watch people when sadness overwhelms them. Knuckles from a tightened fist swipe away tears.
And, always, fingers bunch together like strands of a hangman’s rope because of anger. A hidden palm, now fist as rock, forges a horrific weapon. Observe a crowd with raised fists. Be very afraid when that happens. Be wary of the closed hand, the streak of white across the knuckles because hatred or anger stretches skin and soul so tightly.
Palm Sunday reveled in the human hosannas. Cloaks on the ground, greenery joyfully brandished, and everyone’s hands—young and old, believers and doubters, dreamers and cynics—waved a greeting.
Here Jesus comes. He’ll solve all our problems. Make everything right. Here he comes. He’s a problem. And yet, Jesus is also a threat.
All those Palm Sunday hands will become Good Friday fists.
All of them, except the One with outstretched arms.
[Image – Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem – William Gale (1823-1909)]