Throughout the world Catholic Churches today will bless palm branches and take them home to display them in a prominent place; where they will slowly turn brown and become brittle. These branches remind us of Holy Week throughout the rest of the year and call to mind the suffering, death, and Resurrections of Christ our Lord. Palms already had a symbolic meaning in the ancient world, though.
In the ancient Mediterranean world the palm branch represented life and victory. The Greeks awarded a palm branch to victorious athletes, for example in the Olympic Games. This practice was brought to Rome around 300 B.C. In Rome generals who won great victories were awarded triumphal processions through the streets of Rome. The general was, for the day, elevated above all of the other citizens of Rome, but he wasn’t allowed to wear his triumphal regalia after that day. One of the symbols of his triumph was a crown woven from laurel branches. A servant would ride in the chariot with the general whispering reminders of his mortality to keep everything from going too much to his head. This is what St. Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we can imperishable one.” The crown of laurel or palm branches will literally “perish” as the leaves turn brown and decay, but the crown, or halo, of the saints is eternal.
When the Lord entered Jerusalem the people put palm branches on the ground along his path. The palm branches represented their hope for his victory in retaking Judea from the Romans and restoring the kingdom of David to Israel. Within a few days they would be calling for his crucifixion. The worldly victory that they wanted was as fragile as the palm branches they held, because all worldly kingdoms and empires eventually fade. The victory Christ wanted was a spiritual one, and the kingdom he brought about was the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Likewise, if we place our hopes in earthly victory, power, wealth, or honor we will be disappointed. We may achieve it for a while, but it will eventually fade. Instead, let us place our hope in God, Who desires to share with us the victory of the Cross.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.