Palm Sunday commemorates the day Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a colt (or donkey) with throngs of Messianic enthusiasts paving the way with palm fronds. Celebrations of this holiday therefore often include palms.
In some regions, however, this tropical plant has historically been difficult to acquire, particularly when shipping methods were still primitive and slow. For this reason, local trees were often substituted for palms, and the name of the holiday revised to match.
This raises an intriguing question: Were Christians who celebrated “Yew Sunday” — because their culture knew yews and did not know palms — practicing a heresy because they violated the explicit accounts in scripture?
We don’t think so. In fact, to invest the palm tree (or any other created thing) with significance over and above the spiritual meaning it conveys would verge on idolatry.
This is why AUR takes an idiomatic, rather than dogmatic, approach to religious creed. This approach allows us, even as creedal Christians, to look beyond the particulars of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to see the Word of God as expressed in other regions, other cultures, and even other religious traditions.
Material and Spiritual
The laying of palm fronds is a symbol used to express a particular meaning: triumphant arrival. The meaning is the pointer to spiritual truth, while the symbol is simply the material form that pointer takes. Just as Jesus Christ was “the Word made flesh,” all of the material trappings of religion matter only insofar as they embody spiritual guidance.
Focusing on the material particulars, rather than on the universal spirit of the matter, is spiritually perilous. In fact, it is the very seed of idolatry.
This is why (for example) the emissarial nature of Christ can be described in so many ways. Christ is the Son of God, the Name of God, the Word of God, the Image of God and, of course, the Anointed of God since this is what the words “Christ” and “Messiah” actually mean in Greek and Hebrew.
These symbols are very different from each other, but all have the same meaning: Christ represents God.
The language used is merely idiom; the underlying spiritual meaning is the true essence of religion. And, idiom can take the form of actual words, or any sort of symbol, reference, or place-holder.
For example, there is a controversy (although a rather mild and obscure one) about whether Sunday was the weekday in which Jesus entered Jerusalem, counting backward from Crucifixion Friday, which is said to have happened on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan (נִיסָן). Since the entry was supposed to have happened on the day of preparing the Passover lambs, traditionally the 10th of Nisan, a little grade-school math reveals an inconsistency.
Friday minus 4 does not equal Sunday.
So, are we wrong to commemorate the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem on Sunday and the Crucifixion on Friday? AUR thinks not. It’s neither the palms nor the Sunday that makes Palm Sunday important. Honoring Palm Sunday to revisit the meaning of that day is what is truly important, even if it really happened on a Monday.
Indeed, even if it had never happened at all. After all, the truth of the Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son remains spiritually valid even though it was probably, from a material perspective, a complete fiction.
In this same way, Reform Unitarians take Thursday for our weekly day of worship not because it is particularly important which day of the week one sets aside for worship. We do this to emphasize the importance of moral commitment to salvation, by celebrating the day when Jesus accepted his terrible fate: on Thursday during prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Depending on where one stands on the Easter dating controversy described above, this may or may not have actually happened on Thursday. Regardless, it is the spiritual meaning of “nevertheless Thy will be done” which matters to us, not the arbitrary weekday used to commemorate it.
Although by creed we honor Thursday as the day of Jesus’ moral commitment, we also recognize that this weekday is merely an idiom. If the Last Supper actually took place on Wednesday or Friday, this doesn’t change the meaning of the events of that day, or make Thursday worship “incorrect.”
The particular time of honoring virtue is arbitrary, but having a time to honor virtue is not. As Jesus makes clear in the “Antithesis of the Law” — that’s the part of the Sermon on the Mount when he tells us that anger and lust are what make the acts they inspire sinful — the important thing is not so much what we do or say, but why.
Our flesh is made up of What, but our spirit is made up of Why.
Sanctity Beyond Creed
In a broader sense, Reform Unitarianism recognizes that other faith traditions may differ in the idiom of their teachings but, so long as those teachings are virtuous, we must be pointed to the same truth, the same Good, the same God, even if we are on different paths. Even if the other path doesn’t use the word “God.”
And far from distracting us from our own Christian path or corrupting it, as some dogmatic creedalists might insist in ignorance, this recognition deepens our understanding of and devotion to the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.
After all, the Good Samaritan of Jesus’ parable wasn’t good because he was a Christian and confessed a Christian creed. Samaritanism was in fact a religion considered heretical in Jesus’ day, but the Good Samaritan was still good because he was right in spirit.
Virtue’s independence from creedal idiom is the very meaning of the Good Samaritan parable. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
This truth is particularly significant to the Easter cycle of holidays, because it wraps up with the celebration of Pentecost. We read in The Acts of the Apostles that on the day of Pentecost (which means “fifty days” after Easter) the Apostles were given the “gift of tongues” by the Holy Spirit.
As the account of the Apostles’ preaching in Jerusalem makes clear, this is not a reference to the psychological phenomenon known as glossolalia, mistakenly encouraged in some Trinitarian churches. The gift of tongues merely means speaking in other languages, being able to express the spiritual truth they had learned from Jesus in the idiom of others.
So, in celebration of the beginning of Holy Week, let us lay palm fronds, or yew branches, or even flowers. But, keep in mind the meaning behind this imagery: welcoming the arrival of the Image of spiritual virtue, whose victory is in accepting the necessary and painful limitations of a life “in the flesh.”
[a shorter version of this homily was published previously for the Palm Sundays of other years]