I have had a couple of really interesting and divergent thoughts about palms this week. To me, they have only ever been symbolic of two things: Palm Sunday hosannas and the beach.
This morning was all about the palms of Holy Week. Our Sunday morning service started outside with (mostly) children waving palm fronds up in the air. There was the annual whispered warning from parents that palms fronds are not swords – although as the story of Holy Week unfolds we find that, indeed, they are. Palms held up in praise and welcome are soon fists in the air. While you are marching in the Palm Sunday parade, it is easy to get caught up in the celebration; but before you know it you end up at the courthouse calling for blood.
And then there is this: Before Holy Week even started, I had become part of a discussion about palms in a completely different context. With a group of women – half of us Muslim, half Christian – I have been learning about Mary/Maryam in the Quran. The mother of Jesus is highly revered in Islam and is, in fact, the only woman referred to by name in that holy book.
When she gives birth to Jesus, Maryam is under a date palm tree. It turns out that in Islam and in Arabic/desert culture, the date palm is considered a very special plant. My friends in the group explained that date palms are thought to be more like humans than any other plant. Not only are the trees differentiated as male and female, the “baby” trees are sort of born from the mother. Here is a photo of a little palm pup:
Growers (and legend) say that the baby palms must stay near the mother tree for 6 to 8 years or they will die. (I looked it up online – it is true!) The fruit of the date palm contains a number of essential nutrients and is eaten to break fasting during Ramadan, and many of my study companions gave a taste of date to their newborn children even before giving them milk.
These images have been swirling in my mind as I try to reconcile them into a single metaphorical holy image. That hasn’t happened. But I know that the crowd that raised palms for Jesus came from a culture in which the palm was highly symbolic for multiple reasons – all of them in some way affirming of life, victory, peace, and hospitality. Under the shadow of this symbol a most horrific act of betrayal occurred on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Learning about Maryam and date palms gave me a little comfort for the hard week ahead. In the Quran, palms provided Mary shelter and nourishment as she gave birth alone in the desert, and I think of her keeping the treasured child close until he is old enough to be planted in his own soil. It is a very feminine metaphor for the divine. This week, I imagine God is holding Mary close as she stands at the foot of another tree watching her son suffer and die. Birth, life, death, renewal. Fruit from the same tree.