What happened with palms this year opened up a little window on how “tradition” works.
“It’s traditional” for Christians to celebrate Palm Sunday with actual, physical palms.
Palm Sunday is the sixth Sunday of Lent, the first day of Holy Week, and the day we celebrate Jesus’s “triumphal entry” into the city of Jerusalem on Passover week. The event is an important element of the plot of the story of Jesus’s life. It’s also crammed with symbolism: Jerusalem the Holy City, palms that signify royalty – and Jesus is being hailed a king, “the king of the Jews,” the anointed – Hebrew moshiach – Greek christos – English messiah – of God, riding a donkey that symbolically proclaims “I come in peace” rather than a horse that would say the opposite. That all just scratches the surface.
People who have gone to church a long time will know all this by heart, because we tell the story every year, and we tell it much the same way every time. The pastor will include some of this information in her sermon, elaborate it, expand on the historical or the theological side. The lectionary reading tells the story from the perspective of one of the synoptic gospels. We have probably decorated the sanctuary with palms. Every worshipper has probably been issued a palm branch, which the Worship Committee ordered weeks ago, so that we can all wave them at the appropriate time in the worship service and shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” on cue, re-enacting the event, symbolically, ourselves. Or else while we sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor to thee, redeemer king” as the opening hymn – a more stylized form of symbolic re-enactment, in which the congregation acts as the Greek chorus.
The children in Sunday school hear the story again, in some age appropriate way. They will probably do some kind of craft with palms – make a “palm cross,” or make “palms” literally by cutting out their hand prints from green construction paper and taping them to craft sticks. They will likely have their own procession through the halls of the church or all around the building since it’s spring now and warm enough outside. And because children love stories and love to make things and love to get up and move around, all this is the kind of thing the grown-ups who love them do with the children they love to “share the faith” in a concrete and memorable way. I have heard a lot of now-grown-ups say “I love those palm crosses.”
Then we have to do something with those palms. Take them home and put them in water. Leave them in the back seat of the car to dry out and crumble and have to be vacuumed out darn it. Burn them to make ashes for Ash Wednesday. Something. The physical, material, elements that take part in these shared activities always have to be dealt with in their physicality and materiality, all the way to the end.
All this is “just,” simply, “what we do.” Or perhaps not so simply, as this year’s stay-at-home circumstances reveal.
This year, we could not all get together and wave palms.
Someone on Facebook suggested that “we” all go out and cut a green branch and put it in our windows, so we would all be together, in the sense of doing the same thing at roughly the same time, on Palm Sunday. One of the members of our congregation shared that meme-etic suggestion. I thought that was a good idea, and went out early on Sunday morning and located some branches that I could cut without ruining the landscaping and put them in the device attached to the post on the front porch that was made for holding the flag pole on national holidays. That device worked equally well for the purpose of holding spring beech tree branches.
Doing that felt satisfying.
Online livestream chat-enabled Sunday worship service featured a vase of palms that I happen to know the Worship Committee had made sure to put in a spot that would show up on camera, so at least we would be able to see the palms. So “it will look like Palm Sunday, at least.”
One of the members chatted “I miss the palms.” That got a lot of “likes.”
Then another one of the members chatted “Can you put the palms out front? I’ll come by and get one.”
Great idea! So our pastor put the palms in the vestibule, a little sheltered from the weather, but accessible, behind the front doors and their coronavirus note that explains why the building is locked and how to reach someone in an emergency and how to communicate with us these days otherwise.
I don’t know how many of us went over and got a palm, but I know I did, armed with hand sanitizer to use after touching the door handle, because God knows where that’s been.
I added it to the beech branches on the front porch. That felt even more satisfying.
Because I, too, missed the palms.
And this is where the window on how tradition works opens up.
Tradition is not only habit, or custom – “what we are accustomed to” – although it incorporates that. It is not only something that has been repeated over time – although it undoubtedly depends on that.
Tradition is not only “an expression of identity” – a symbolic gesture that makes the statement “I am one of them” – although it incorporates that, too. It is probably equally true to say that participating in some tradition is one of the things that makes a person “one of them.” One of them concretely, physically, materially, but also emotionally and mentally, or subjectively. And “subjective,” pertaining to the interiority of a subject, is one of the things we mean by “spiritual.”
More than all of that, tradition is something we do, that connects – that holds together – who we have been, who we are, who we will be, and who else we will be all that with.
Tradition, in other words, is an active process of connection. It is the complex human way that we make “human connection” happen.
The palms by themselves are not “the tradition.” They are not even intrinsically meaningful. But when we take a physical, material palm, and designate it as a Palm Sunday palm, and treat it as one in a series of remembered palms of Palm Sundays past, and in doing so become imaginatively aware that others are also taking palms and are thinking about them much as we are, and with that awareness re-affirm our identification with, our belonging to, our being one of the people who have these palms on Palm Sunday, and our understanding of why we have them, and our love of the story they are part of telling, and our love for the One whose story it is, and our love for the other people who know that story and tell it and also love the One whose story it is … when we make the palms something we love because of the way they are part of some bigger love … then we have “tradition.”
Tradition is one of the ways people make … create … love.
No wonder we missed the palms.
So we made new ways to have them, adapted to the new circumstances.
And that, too, is such a traditional thing to do.