Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
At the Mass
Dear brothers and sisters,
As we enter this church dedicated to the honor of Saint Agnes, we pass by an image of our heavenly patroness holding both a lamb and a palm branch in her hands. She holds a lamb both to signify her name – which, in Latin, is related to agnus, the word for lamb – and to point us to the Lamb of God. She holds a palm in her other hand to signify her victory in Christ, to show that when faced with death she refused to renounce him who died for her.
In the ancient pagan world, after winning a competition, athletes were given a palm as a symbol of their victory over their competitors. Within the Jewish world, the palm then became a symbol of celebration, which is why the Psalmist commanded the people to “join in procession with leafy branches up to the horns of the altar” (Psalm 118:27). The Lord commanded the people to take “branches of palm trees, and boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook” and “rejoice before the Lord” (Leviticus 23:40). The palm was also seen as a symbol of righteousness, which is why the Psalmist also sang, “The just shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psalm 92:13). The palm also came to symbolize the victory of the Lord’s anointed, which is why the people “bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm … offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place” (II Maccabees 10:7).
For the early Christians, the palm – without losing any of this symbolism - took on a further significance as a symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death and of the martyrs’ sharing in the triumph of Christ’s Cross. In his vision of the heavenly court, Saint John saw “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). Saint Agnes, then, stands before the throne of God holding a palm branch in her hand to show she now rejoices because she was purified through her sharing in the sufferings of Christ. She holds her palm as a symbol of her victory; what will we do with the palms we carry today?
Some, like much of that crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem and then forsook, will leave their palms behind and go home without them, not seeing Jesus for who he is. Others will take them home and throw them away. Still others will play with them as swords, or weave them into crosses or other designs. Some will place them behind a crucifix or an image of Jesus. They will see these palms for what they are, continual reminders Jesus’ victory over sin and death and of his call for us to share in it.
This morning, as Christians gathered for the celebration of Palm Sunday, two bombs exploded in Egypt. The first, near the altar in the church of St. George in city of Tanta, killing at least 27 Coptic Christians and wounding more than 60 others. The second, at the Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria, where Pope Tawadros II offered the holy Mass, killing at least 13 Coptic Christians and wounding more than 66 others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks. In recent days, it warned of attacks in Egypt planned for Palm Sunday, yet still these Christians – knowing the danger - gathered to carry their palms to go with Jesus into Jerusalem to share in the fruits of his Passion. Today, our brothers and sisters in Christ have carried their palms not back to their homes, but into heaven. Now they stand before the throne and the Lamb in the company of Saint Agnes, of Saint George, and of Saint Mark, wearing white robes and holding their trophies of victory in Christ. What will we do with our palms?
As we enter into this Holy Week, let us pray that in every aspect of our lives we might testify that Jesus Christ is Lord (cf. Philippians 2:11). Amen.