Homily for Palm Sunday

How quickly the palms dry out. 

On Palm Sunday, they’re green (well, green-ish, at least around the edges). They’re pliable, and some crafty people manage to weave them into crosses (how do they do that?). But usually by the end of the week, they become brittle and yellow. 

This shouldn’t really surprise us, because the palm fronds are dead when they come to us, cut off from the source that nourishes them. Separated from the tree, all they can do, really, is fade and dry out. It happens every year. 

We, too, are at risk of drying out. Our best intentions sometimes fail to materialize. What did I say I was going to do for Lent this year when it began on Ash Wednesday?  Sustaining our efforts to fast, to give more generously, to pray--just sustaining, to say nothing of growing--is hard. And this year, more than any other, it may feel like we’ve been cut off from the sacramental source that is supposed to nourish us through the season. Will we, like those palms, fade and dry out?  

Here in Rhode Island, the governor instructed churches not to distribute palms at all, even outside of Mass. Maybe that’s the case where you are, too. So let’s not worry about the palms. Let’s think instead about the wood of the cross. That wood, too, was hewn from dead logs, cut off from the source that nourished them. 

Lumber from recently felled trees has a fair amount of moisture in it. It starts out supple at first, but as it dries, the wood often twists and warps, and that’s not a good thing. This is why most carpenters wait until the wood has dried out before trying to build anything: it becomes lighter, stronger, and more stable in the process. 

As a woodworker myself, I wonder about the wood of the cross. What species of wood was it?  Who built it?  Was it quickly fashioned out of rough-hewn logs, or was it more carefully and deliberately constructed?  

But I digress…..As I said, that wood was dead. 

When Christ is nailed to it, however, the wood of the cross takes on new meaning and the wood, as it were, receives new life. Though separated from the source of its physiological life, it becomes intimately attached to the very author of its metaphysical life.

An ancient hymn by Venantius Fortunatus speaks of this transformation:

Lofty tree, bend down thy branches, to embrace thy sacred load; oh, relax the native tension of that all too rigid wood; gently, gently bear the members of thy dying King and God.

If we feel like we’re drying out, separated from those places and people and things that support and nourish us, unable to participate physically in the Mass and receive the Eucharist, perhaps still we’re becoming stronger in the process, like wood being dried in preparation for building something. 

This week, in the midst of an ailing and suffering world, may we prepare ourselves like the cross to become more intimately attached to Jesus than ever, and may He bring us new life.

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