For the past few years, on Palm Sunday I’ve led my church in folding palm crosses. It is a longstanding church tradition, but a fairly recent one for Church by the Sea. Each year I’ve had at least one of my kids help me with the demonstration. This year Lila and her good friend Eva helped me out. I usually have to twist my older kids arms to get them on stage, but when I mentioned it to Lila she said, “oh, that sounds like so much fun!”
Every year I get a little teased for doing the crosses. I realize it can feel a bit like arts and crafts time, but I think we can use more of that in church. It is good for us to use our hands, not just our minds and mouths. But more than anything, I love the symbolism. The deep meaning it brings to an otherwise awkward day of celebration.
Palm Sunday was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The palm branches symbolize the cheers of victory as the new king rode into town. But the praises would be short lived. The hosannas would turn to jeers and cries of anger in less than a week. Selfish motives would be exposed. It is shocking how quickly our allegiance can turn when our expectations go unmet.
Palm Sunday begins Christ’s journey towards the cross. And so we take the palm leaves and bend them and bruise them and twist them until they are formed into the symbol of sacrificial love. Because that is actually where true hope lies. Not in conquest, but in pouring our lives out for the sake of others.
After the services I go through the pews and gather the remains. Twisted palms, bent and broken. As I gather them, these crooked crosses, I can see the intentions of the ones that did the folding. They tried, but couldn’t quite get it. I can sense their frustration as I see their discarded failed attempts. I gather them, and I save them. And eventually, I burn them. Along with all the others left behind. I’ll wait almost a year, and then my son and I will take them all out to our barbeque and set them aflame.
Afterwards we’ll gather the ash, and on the following Ash Wednesday, I’ll apply the ash to the foreheads of the ones that gather in church for a time of confession and repentance. “From dust you have come and to dust you will return.”
These crooked crosses have become dear to me. They are beautiful in their own way. To me, they symbolize the incredible grace of God that beams with joy in our failed and frustrated attempts to do good. Like a loving parent cheering their kid on as they swing and miss the ball. “Good try!”
In one of my favorite prayers, Thomas Merton writes,
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Isn’t that so good! “the desire to please you does in fact please you.” Thank God for that! Because sometimes that is all we have. On Palm Sunday, we are reminded that the only victory we can cling to is God’s grace. In all our twisted motives and misguided prayers, that is ultimately, the only thing we can depend on.
At our Lent service last night, my friend John’s wife, Cathy, started refolding the broken palms. I hadn’t seen crosses like that…loops instead of tight edges. They were beautiful. The frayed edges and dry cracks smoothed and reshaped. It was so redemptive.
And maybe this is what God does. He takes our crooked crosses, our broken Hallelujahs, and refolds them, patiently, into something more. Or He gathers the remains and savors the attempts and smiles. All of them, ultimately returning to dust. A reminder to us that our lives are over so quickly, and yet are extremely precious to God.