The Rush of Palms

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If you’ll be driving past some churches this coming Sunday, you might be slightly slowed down because of extra traffic. Many Christians celebrate Palm Sunday which is the start of the holiest week in the Christian calendar. In fact we call it “Holy Week.” More people than usual attend church on this day.

As people arrive, they receive a piece of palm which they carry and wave in procession as everyone sings a hymn of praise, the same psalm sung by Jews 2000 years ago as they entered the holy city of Jerusalem: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Christians remember that day when Jesus entered Jerusalem, at first caught up in the crowd who waved palms as they sang God’s praises. But all too soon, a week that started with joy was turned by betrayal, jealousy, fear and hate into days of suffering for Jesus.

Have you ever had a week like that? Everything is going great, but then something bad happens. A frightening diagnosis, a child who doesn’t come home but is seen at a drug house, a job that is no longer there, a death in the family, a relative or friend taken to jail…the list of our sorrows goes on and on.

I think that for so many the appeal of Palm Sunday goes beyond getting a souvenir leaf. We recognize the struggles of our life in the struggles of Jesus. As we listen to his betrayal, his arrest, his trial, his conviction, his tortuous death, they can see how our lives are caught up in the events of that first holy week. We sometimes live on the side of Jesus, experiencing betrayal and injustice. But then we get a glimpse that sometimes we are on the opposite side. We are the ones who sometimes betray and who are unjust. Palm Sunday can provide a day of adjustment where we reassess who we are and what we’re meant to be about.

Palm Sunday is sometimes a challenge for the people who worship at church every week. We are creatures of habit and although there are no assigned seats, most people sit in the same place each week. On Palm Sunday, the church is filled with people whom the regular church-goer hopes will show up each week, only not in “their” seat. Of course the laws of physics prevent two people from being in the same seat at the same time, so something has to give. Though I’ve never heard of a seat-fight breaking out, I do know that there is a temptation to throw a critical glance in the direction of someone who seems to be an invader.

So if you’re a first time visitor to a church on Palm Sunday, I want you to know that you ARE welcome. Take a seat where you can and be open to God’s message to you. If you’re a regular church goer, practice smiling and offer words of welcome over the next few days so that it will com naturally this Sunday. If you’re successful, who knows? Maybe you’ll never get “your” seat back again and you’ll be happy a few feet in front or to the side of someone new who is now regularly praying and being blessed. It IS what you were hoping for, right?

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Pastor of St. Bernard's since 2013 and known for his engaging homilies and community presence, Father Ralph Sommer is also a treasured columnist for the Levittown Tribune.

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