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.

A pile of palms

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 ┬álearning 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:

Mother and Child

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.

Ashes to Dust to Earth

In October, I watched the ashes of my uncle go into the ground. Right next to the ashes of his mother, my grandmother. In my front garden are the ashes of my mother-in-law and father-in-law. A tall pear tree used to shade them, now it is a place where their grandchildren tumble. On a hillside in North Carolina my father’s ashes are buried next to many other faithful women and men. He has most likely become soil by now, and fed the vines and trees that shade his visitors.

Today, I will have ashes on my forehead to mark the start of a season of penitence. It is a time for self-examination, repentance and renewal of faith–and the spiritual practices that encourage them. But for me it has also become a time to remember not only that I will become ashes and dust and earth some day, but that many I love already have. Ashes remind me of my mortality, and also of the mortals who have inspired me with their faith, their struggles, and their utter need to be connected through love to others. They are my cloud of witnesses.

For the rest of Lent, in addition to repentance and renewal, I’ll be joining the fun and snark of Lent Madness.┬áBut the saints from my family, those who have wrestled with God and gone before me, will inspire me to think about my own life and relationship to both the divine and the mundane. And while Easter is still weeks away, the alleluias banished and buried, I will see a little resurrection in the life of their heirs, my children. Much like the weekly suspension of Lent we have on Sundays, it is not only the realization of mortality that inspires repentance, it is also the hope of renewal.

There is a cycle that completes the ashes to dust to earth…and it is new life. In my garden, on a hillside, in my family, and throughout creation.