In a normal year, we would have palm fronds in our hands at the beginning of Mass this Sunday. We’d hear a gospel account of Jesus’ “triumphant” entrance into Jerusalem, with a cheering crowd waving palms and spreading them on the road in front of him.
But one of the ironies of Palm Sunday is that just a half hour later in that same liturgy, the palms have become something else. It turns out this wasn’t a triumphant procession at all—in fact, in the end it was a rather hollow moment. At the end of today’s passion reading from Matthew, we don’t see Jesus victorious, but deserted by everyone, even, it seems, by God. If we look honestly at those palms, we see that they are a sad reminder of a victory party that was not to be, a sign of how quickly our human ideas of greatness can come to nothing.
It’s ironic that these symbolically complicated palms have become such a beloved Catholic giveaway. Maybe the parishioners who are so skilled at weaving palms into crosses are the ones with the right idea of what they mean: the palms led Jesus not to kingship but to the death he knew was his.
This year, we’ll have to read that passion story on our own, or try to experience it online. I think no matter how we encounter it, there will be an emotional connection—because almost more than any other gospel reading, it shows us a world we recognize. This year we are surrounded by illness and death and separation, and this story of innocent suffering and human frailty is even more powerfully not just Jesus’ story, but our story.