Sunday, April 09, 2006

Palms and Crosses in Christianity

The two most important symbols of Holy Week are the Palms of Palm Sunday and the Cross of Good Friday. The palms and the cross speak about Jesus Christ. They tell us about ourselves. With a normal population of about 50,000 at that time, Jerusalem may have easily gathered several hundreds of people carrying palm or olive branches to welcome the Rabbi or Teacher from Galilee, Jesus Christ. It was a kind of “people power” drawing into some kind of climax the secret or silent aspiration of the Jewish people for a new leader from their ranks. The scene was a very spontaneous show of support for a new leader. The singing of an ancient victory song was also spontaneous “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Palm or olive branches have been the traditional emblems of joy and victory over enemies, likewise the red attire of victorious leaders. In Christianity, the palms and the red vestments of martyrs are the signs of their victory over the flesh and the world. The Resurrection of Christ and the empty tomb proved the success of Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The universal celebration shows the universality of the salvation he brought.

That first Palm Sunday brought Jesus into collision course with the religious and political authorities, represented by the Scribes and Pharisees, the Sanhedrin and the Roman Governor. They had been conspiring against Jesus. According to records, of seven instances to plot against Jesus, two were efforts to arrest him, and three to assassinate him. But as Jesus was saying “the hour has not yet come.” There was a political reason why Jesus was considered dangerous. His preaching and actuations were destabilizing the precarious balance of authority. He might lead an uprising against the status quo. A religious reason made Jesus a dangerous item too. He was regarded by the many poor Jews, whom he has helped with food, healing, attention and teaching, as “more than a man,” in fact as “Son of God.” Economic motives were also included in opposing Jesus: by driving the dealers and animals, Jesus was destabilizing the economic agenda of the authorities of the temple. These made the leadership of Jesus dangerous.

There is a shift of symbol on Good Friday. With the Cross and the crucifixion of Jesus, the hideous becomes beautiful, the hateful becomes loveable, defeat becomes victory. The Cross is the symbol of suffering turned into sacrifice, of despair transformed into hope, of death converted into life. If we ask John the Beloved Disciple, where did you see the glory of the Christ? He will reply: “I saw his glory as he was hanging on the cross; I saw his glory shining from his lacerated body, from his wounds, from his pierced side. And then I saw his glory in the empty tomb.” Hence, Palms are now given the shape of a Cross; or the Cross decorated with palm or olive branches. The son of God saved mankind not through any show of power-play but by sharing our human suffering, making our crosses, together with his Cross, the door of our redemption.

During the coming Holy Week, “as we look on him whom we have pierced” (cf. Jo. 19/37), we bring the symbols of the palms and the cross to our life experience. Whoever you are: crucified or crucifier, Christ died for you. Lifted up from the earth, he draws us all to himself (cf. Jo. 12/32), in order that in his embrace we may break all hostilities, enmities, brutalities and animosities, and give witness to the “power of love.
08 April 2006

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