Palms, Willows and Flowers

John 12:1-18

The triumphant entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem before His revelation has been celebrated since the first centuries of Christianity. In the Church it is listed as one of the Major Feasts of the liturgical year and is always celebrated on the Sunday before Easter (referred to as Pascha or Passover in the Ancient Church).

In liturgical books the feast is referred to as Palm Sunday since, on this day, palm branches are blessed and distributed to the faithful. In some parts of Europe it is called Willow Sunday, because pussy willows are blessed instead of palms. And, in yet other parts of the world, it is also known as Flower Sunday, since they use early spring flowers, such as branches of lilac, elder, laurel or other fragrant branches.

From ancient times, palm branches were symbols of victory and triumph. The Romans would reward their champions of the sporting games with palm branches. Also, military triumphs and celebrations of victory were observed with palms. The Jews followed the same custom as recorded in both Leviticus 23:40 and 1 Maccabees 13:37 of carrying palm branches on festive occasions. And that is what happened during the solemn entry of Jesus into the Holy City before His last Passover (John 12:13).

In the New Testament, palm branches are a symbol of martyrdom (Revelation 7:9) symbolizing victory over death. For this reason, in Christian art, martyrs were usually represented with palms in their hands. These branches were usually cut from date palms, as told by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387) in his tenth catechises.

In the Septuagint translation, Psalm 92:12-13 reads, "Palm trees ... planted in the house of God." Here palm trees represent paradise. In ancient art Jesus often was portrayed in heaven amid palms.

As we meditate on the significance of Palm Sunday for a few moments, let's look at the days preceding Christ's entrance into Jerusalem, and the story of Lazarus and Martha and Mary.

Their home was in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Early church tradition tells us it was Martha's house; she was an older widow, and her younger brother and sister, Lazarus and Mary, lived with her. Jesus enjoyed a special friendship with each of them.

Martha made Jesus and the disciples with Him comfortable in her home and set about preparing an elaborate supper for them. Jesus and the disciples were not accustomed to such luxury. They lived simply and ate plain meals as they traveled from town to town.

While Martha was bustling about in the kitchen trying to put together her fancy meal, Mary was sitting quietly on the floor, earnestly listening to Jesus as He discussed the Word. Finally, exasperated, Martha strode into the living room. "Don't you care that my sister has left me to do all the cooking and serving alone?" she asked Jesus. "Tell her to help me."

You don't have to sugar-coat the truth for your close friends, and Jesus didn't. He told Martha she was fussing far too much and getting all upset over nothing. "Mary is doing what's really important," He told Martha, "and I'm not going to take that away from her." Jesus neither expected nor did He want an elaborate feast. He was there to spend quality time with His friends.

The next time we hear about Martha and her family, Lazarus is critically ill, and his sisters ask Jesus to come heal him. You know the story. Jesus delays his journey for two days, finally telling his disciples that Lazarus has "fallen asleep" and that he is going to "awaken" him. He meant, of course, that his friend was dead. As Jesus arrives back in Bethany, both sisters are weeping, sorrowful over their brother's death, and Jesus weeps as well, feeling the profound depth of his friends' grief.

In His exchange with Martha, Jesus declares, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die." Jesus then turns their weeping to tears of joy when He brings His friend back to life with the words, "Lazarus, come forth!"

In today's Gospel, the dinner scene is very similar to Jesus' earlier visit. Martha has once again prepared an elaborate supper and is serving, while Mary attends to Jesus. This time, however, their brother Lazarus is present, enjoying a miraculous second chance at living. We can scarcely imagine how grateful and filled with wonder these three siblings must have been as they entertained the One Who performed that incredible miracle for their family.

Only a few days remain before Jesus will sit down with His disciples in the upper room to eat the last Passover meal before His arrest and crucifixion. Time was drawing short, and Jesus had been dropping broad hints to His followers about the grim fate that awaited Him. St. Luke tells us the disciples were in deep denial, unable to comprehend that such a fate could befall their Master.

Perhaps some of them were still clinging to the misguided belief that Jesus had come as a political revolutionary. Perhaps they still imagined Him leading an insurrection to defeat the Romans, a rebel uprising to put an end to the brutal occupation once and for all.

He had told them numerous times His Kingdom was not of this world, that the Son of Man would soon be delivered into the hands of His enemies and be killed, but they still didn't "get it." St. Matthew tells us that they were afraid to even ask.

But Mary got it. Mary seemed to understand that something was about to happen, something the others didn't fully realize. I believe she understood in that moment that Jesus was going to die, and she wanted to do something special to pay her last respects to this One Who had meant so much to her, and had raised her brother from the dead. She set aside for a moment the cultural norms of "a woman's place" in Jewish society, and honored Jesus by an incredibly intimate and extravagant act.

She brought out an alabaster vial containing a pound of rare perfume made from a plant found only in the Himalayan Mountains in India, China and Nepal. Such a large quantity would have been specially imported over a great distance, and at great expense. Bible scholars say the perfume would have cost a year's wages for a worker in Israel at that time. This was pure nard a highly perfumed ointment used for preparing the dead for burial in the Middle East. Tradition tells us it was also sometimes given as a gift to kings.

Filled with emotion, Mary knelt before Jesus, her tears falling upon His feet, and broke the alabaster vial so that its entire contents anointed His feet in a symbolic act of preparing Him for burial. It was the only funeral Jesus would have. Then she wiped His feet with her long hair, a gesture of tender affection that probably made the disciples and her siblings uncomfortable. The Gospel says the fragrance of the perfume filled the entire house.

Everyone was stunned into silence. Everyone, that is, except Judas Iscariot, the traitor in their midst, whom the Gospel says was already planning to betray Jesus. Judas demanded to know why this valuable gift had been wasted, when it could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money used to help the poor.

Jesus knew Judas wasn't thinking about the poor. "Man looks upon the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart," and Jesus knew Judas objected only because he was greedy, and a thief. Judas kept the money box and would steal from it regularly, and he coveted that 300 denarii for himself.

"Leave her alone," Jesus said sharply to Judas. "She is keeping the custom for my burial. The poor you will have with you always; you can do good for them anytime you want. You won't always have Me." Then He added, "Wherever in this world the Gospel is preached, I want the story of what this woman has done to be told as well."

Two lines from a familiar old poem read, "Only one life, t'will soon be past, only what's done for Christ will last." What Mary did for Christ that day has lasted and has been remembered for two thousand years. And here we are, still joyously telling her story in the twenty-first century.

This morning, let us join our hearts and voices together in proclaiming the hymns we have sung today.

O Christ our God, by raising Lazarus from the dead, You, before the time of Your Passion, confirmed the resurrection of everyone; therefore we, as the children of Israel, carry the symbols of victory and cry out to You, the Conqueror of death: "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord!"

"With palms and branches let us raise our voices of praise, saying: Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, our Savior!"

"Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9)

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