Palm Sunday 2020

Palm Sunday, and here we are at home. If we have any palm branches, they’re probably left over from last year, dried up like flowers from an old high school prom date.

I think of the cry of the psalmist, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”    because as familiar as home might be under normal circumstances, being in forced isolation can make home feel like a completely different reality, a strange and confined and lonely place. I admit to spending a fair amount of time feeling weepy and sad. But it is precisely in this strange land that we are called to sing the Lord’s song this Palm Sunday.

And wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are not without palms. Did you know that palm trees received their name because the branching leaves on many species resemble a spread hand?

Take a minute now to look at the palm of your hand. We spend a lot of time these days washing our hands, and we’ve been advised as part of the ritual to make sure we scrub the palms, so we probably see them a lot more often than we’re used to. But think how, Sunday by Sunday, it is in that palm that we have received the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven. (And yes, it is a deep grief not to be able to receive the Bread of Life into the palms of our hands this holy season, but it is also, for now, necessary; it is all right. We are all right.)

Because not only do we each have our own palms this Palm Sunday, but we have Scripture and hymns and psalms that remind us that we are held in the palm of God’s hands. If you’ve been following Morning Prayer these past weeks, you’ve been reciting the Venite pretty regularly:

Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.

Then, turning to Hebrew Scripture, in Ecclesiasticus we hear from God — at a time when the Israelites thought God had forgotten them — a definitive “no I haven’t.” God tells them:  “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hand.” Imagine your hand as God’s hand, and your name written there.

And then of course there is our beloved hymn with the familiar refrain:

‘And I will raise you up on eagle’s wings, — please recite or sing it with me —
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of my hand

We are loved. We are held, no matter what happens, no matter what assaults and hurts our bodies or our souls, we are held in the palm of God’s hand. And that’s a comforting thought this Palm Sunday.

Now, all of this ruminating about God’s hands and our own made me think of how at the ordination of a priest, the hands are blessed and anointed with oil. When I completed my training as a spiritual director, during the closing ceremony the palms of my hands were blessed and anointed.

And recently I’ve been reading about nurses who offer a “blessing of hands” during Nurses Week in May. “Through blessing our hands,” they say, “ we acknowledge that they are holy hands, given to fulfill divine purposes. This blessing symbolizes our belief in the sacredness of our everyday lives and work.” –I would say that for any of you in any kind of health care, your work really has become “every day,” and all of it is sacred. — The service concludes with the anointing of their hands and these words: “Bless our hearts and hands, and guide us to use them to make whole what is broken in our world.”  I’m going to read that again, and because, in this time of pandemic, all of us are called in new and daunting ways to hold and help and heal one another, even at a distance, I invite you to make the sign of the cross in your own palm as I read: “Bless our hearts and [our] hands, and guide us to use them to make whole what is broken in our world.”

The world is broken right now. But remember that Jesus himself was broken on the cross. We just heard his final cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  As we enter into Holy Week, yes, we know the end of the story, but we also know that the Resurrection does not negate the reality of Christ’s suffering, the nail holes in his palms, his death on the cross. Knowing that we are held in God’s hands does not take away the pandemic, does not eliminate all our fears, does not deny our brokenness.  But it does offer hope, and strength, and courage.

And so it is that even in the face of Christ’s passion and our own pandemic, even now we cry, “Hosanna!” The word, “hosanna,” after all, comes from the Hebrew phrase hoshiya na, which literally means, “save us, we pray!” Originally it was a cry to God for help, but by the time of Jesus, the phrase hoshiya na had also come to carry the assurance that the plea would be answered: so that along with “God help us” was understood, “and we praise you because we know you hear us.” So yes, let’s raise our palms again, and cry out in gratitude to our Lord: “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!”

And then let’s find creative ways to use these hands to be a blessing in our beautiful and broken world.