Palm trees in Los Angeles, California (RawPixel)

The Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange is a 130-foot tall, five-level stack interchange near the Athens and Watts communities of Los Angeles It is considered one of the most complicated interchanges in the United States, with multiple entries and exits in all directions between the I-105 and the I-110. Returning to LAX from traveling, I always look forward to my husband driving me home through this interchange. It offers a breathtaking view of Los Angeles; you can see the city below and downtown in the distance. The Santa Monica Mountain Range serves as a backdrop. Some days the range looks more beautiful than others, depending on how clear the sky is. Then there are the palm trees (another iconic symbol of Los Angeles, in addition to the freeways). They stand out high above the rest of the city like tulips in a garden, and are a sign that I am home. Even where I grew up on Palmetto Ave., fifty miles from downtown, palm trees line both sides of the street. 

I’ve wondered on Palm Sunday what palm-waving feels like to those who don’t have this connection to the palm tree. As a child, I loved watching the palm trees sway in the Santa Ana winds. Palms are more like grass than hardwoods, so they bend easily in strong winds, even up to hurricane conditions. The palm fronds aren’t as resilient and blow down easily. As children, we felt lucky if we witnessed the moment a large frond fell from above. It was almost exhilarating. After high winds, the street and front yard would be covered in fronds. My father would spend a morning collecting the palm debris and the rest of the day complaining about it.

Though ubiquitous across southern California, most varieties of palm trees are not native to the state. Falling palm fronds can be dangerous to cars, pedestrians, and buildings. Improperly maintained palm trees can accumulate dead and dry fronds over time and become highly flammable, yet palm-tree trimming itself presents unique dangers to those who are tasked with their maintenance. Yet few think about this as they take in the sight of palm trees standing tall, silhouetted by the sun, or bending (but not breaking) in the winds.  

Signs and symbols are important to us. They remind us of a time, people, places, and feelings.

The liturgical Procession with Palms offers two Gospel reading options, Mark 11:1-10 or John 12:12-16. The community, gathered outside the church with palms in hand, will either hear Mark’s description: “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields” (Mark 11:8). or John’s version of the great crowd that “took palm branches and went out to meet [Jesus]” (John 12:13). There is an important distinction here. Mark’s gospel speaks of leafy branches, while John’s specifically mentions palm branches. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel doesn’t mention branches at all, while Matthew states, “The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and strewed them on the road” (Matthew 21:8). Palm branches are mentioned only in John’s gospel, and yet they are the chosen liturgical sacramental. 

Signs and symbols are important to us. They remind us of a time, people, places, and feelings. John’s gospel differs from the synoptic gospels. It presents a more developed theology, employing symbolism to communicate it. The specificity of the palm branches in John’s gospel allowed his intended audience to easily infer the meaning of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Palms were a symbol of joy and victory in that time and place and for the people his Gospel was intended for. We don’t know for certain what kind of branches were used to welcome Jesus in Jerusalem (or if branches were used at all, based on Luke’s account). What matters most is that Jesus came home, and his return was a victory. 

The palms I wave on Palm Sunday are familiar to me. They have a symbolic meaning unique to my experience. The second Gospel reading every Palm Sunday retells Jesus’ road to crucifixion. Gathered in the worship area in our pews, we are still holding the palms we waved outside for the procession. As I listen to the Gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion the palm branch in my hand reminds me that like the palm trees, Jesus was bent to great extremes—but I trust that he’ll stand tall among us, silhouetted by the sun on Easter.   

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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