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Fronds forever: the palms in our hands make the story of Jesus' last days something we can, literally, grasp.

ON PALM SUNDAY, AS WE SHUFFLE INTO CHURCH, SOME of us grab long palm leaves and bind them into crosses. Maybe we fold them to tuck behind pictures of the Sacred Heart when we get home. Some people tack them to bulletin boards. Others put them on the visor of their car. I've noticed people during Mass weaving them into elaborate designs. And I've known one or two people who have slipped them unceremoniously on the top of the refrigerator, where they gather dust and dry out.

Some people mark the seasons with a calendar. Some Catholics, with leaves from a tropical tree. The fact is, these fronds are tangible symbols we can hold in our hands, making the story of Jesus' last days something we can, literally, grasp. Holding them, we are given the sudden sensation of being there, in Jerusalem two millennia ago, waving palms. Time and space vanish. We are ready to greet him--and then, playing our part in the gospel reading that Sunday, we are ready to kill him.

The palm leaves remind us of our complicity. And we take them home so we do not forget it. But why palm fronds? Some of it is geography. Palm trees have flourished around the Holy Land for thousands of years. Leviticus describes people carrying them at the Feast of Tabernacles. The psalmist says, "The just shall flourish like the palm tree" (Ps. 92). In Revelation, palms are clasped in the hands of the great multitude standing before the Lamb (Rev. 7:15). It's understandable that in a land of desert and sand the soaring palm tree inevitably came to represent resilience and triumph--a fitting way to pay tribute to an arriving dignitary, even if he did ride into town on a donkey.

It's not clear when exactly, but early Christians latched onto the idea of collecting palms on the last Sunday before Easter, but it was written about as early as the fourth century. Evidently the idea stuck. Over the years, people of different countries and cultures found novel ways to use the branches blessed on Palm Sunday. They were displayed in houses and sometimes thrown into the fire in a trusting bid to protect family and livestock during storms. To this day in parts of Europe palms are often used to decorate graves. And in places where palms are hard to come by, the faithful use branches from olive, box eider, or spruce trees, sometimes wrapping them in flowers.

But it is the humble palm frond that has captured our imagination and has become a fixture in so many Catholic homes. It may be one of the most familiar and beloved of our sacramentals and one of the most versatile, since sacred palms actually have an afterlife. Blessed palms are supposed to be burned, the ashes then used to mark foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Failing that, the ashes are to be returned to the earth, dust to dust. When all is said and done, however, the powerful hold that palms have on us and our faith may run deeper than any of that.

Webster's says the name palm tree actually derives from the way the leaves resemble the shape of an outstretched hand (palame in Greek).And there you find their deepest meaning. Look at your hand and see the thin rivers of texture that are uniquely your own. Your palm print is the signature of who you are. There is your lifeline to fortunetellers, your fate, and the subtle shadings of flesh and bone and blood that enable you to grip, to hold, to write, to release.

With that hand earth can be tilled, clay can be formed, empires can be built. In that hand you can hold an egg to be warmed or a flower to be given or a stone to be hurled. You can grab the hand of another to squeeze away fear or to offer friendship. A hand can heal a hurt, brush aside a tear, or play a Beethoven sonata.

In the palm of your hand, you can find the humblest and most personal expression of who you are--the part of you that lifts and carries, mends and makes amends.

AND SO IT WAS THAT ON THE FIRST PALM SUNDAY THE PEOPLE of Jerusalem offered to a man riding a donkey something of themselves--those large leaves that resembled their outstretched hands. And in the end, he gave back something of himself--the most personal expression of who he was--when he offered his outstretched arms to a broken world and felt the first crushing sting, there, in the palm of his hand.

GREG KANDRA, writer and story producer for the CBS News program 60 Minutes II. He lives and works in New York City.
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Title Annotation:practicing catholic
Author:Kandra, Greg
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Words:792
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