Fragrance of Palms

Each year I was caught off guard, then delighted, when Mom and Dad hauled us off to church and we got something special which we could actually take home. Although we weren’t allowed to play with the palms, we were encouraged in the whimsical craft of weaving intricate braids. Scraps were transformed into miniature crosses.

Our best handiwork would adorn the crucifix which hung in our living room or atop the ornate gold frame encasing the Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon which my maternal grandparents received as a wedding gift in 1895. That crucifix and icon are two of my most precious possessions today holding places of honor in our home.

I recall being awestruck upon learning that the dusty dry palms of the previous year were burned to provide the ashes for Ash Wednesday. That was another favorite day because, like Palm Sunday, we got a “freebie” in the form of an exotic smudge on our faces. Like incense, the distinctive fragrance of palm and ash still transport me to the realm of the Holy.

Growing up with the liturgical fanfare of St. Cecilia Cathedral prepared me well for the rarefied studies at the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, MA. Much time and energy were expended on the proper form of gathering a worshipping community out-of-doors for festive procession into church with palms waving overhead. We were instructed in the art of eliciting the effusive emotions appropriate for welcoming royalty. Liturgical rubrics were given full throttle with roles carefully orchestrated – much like most wedding ceremonies today.

Nothing – absolutely nothing – prepared me for the first Palm Sunday liturgy at which I presided. Freshly transplanted from the environs of Harvard Square, I found myself atop Cuny Table on the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota. A typical Sunday had me making a 100 mile loop for services at three “mission” churches – first Porcupine, then Red Shirt and finally Cuny Table. Anywhere from three to twelve people would be present for each service.

This particular Sunday I carried a bundle of moist palms along with all the usual supplies needed for Eucharist. As I had done at the two previous sites, I unlocked the church and set up for my third Mass of the morning. Someone else dutifully came the evening before to light the propane heater so our gathering space would be warm. This morning was fresh, crisp and bright. Perched near the edge of Cuny Table we were treated to breath-taking views of the Badlands that became easy to take for granted.

The white Gothic church worthy of Grant Woods stood like a sentinel amid the brown stubble pasture nearly barren from winter grazing. We stalwart eight fumbled with logistical practicalities but we made it happen! We’d begin our prayer outdoors and solemnly process just as others were doing in Cambridge, MA or Omaha’s Cathedral. These proud Lakota Catholics held strong to the faith of Red Cloud. As the one presiding, my unique obligation was protecting the palms from grazing cattle – they did yield their pasture to us one hour each week and we were in possession of the greenest plant they’d seen in nine months!

Each of the twenty years since, the sight and smell of palms transports me back to that very grace-filled moment on Cuny Table. More than esoteric discussions in Boston classrooms, the faith of these stalwart descendents of Red Cloud taught me what is important about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit,if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! (Phil 2:1-8)

As if perched atop Cuny Table, our Gothic churches need to hover the edges and peripheries of our winter-barren world. All creation is hungry for what people of humble faith have to offer. Our palms are not intended for some Victorian braid propped behind ancient symbols. Fresh, we wave them today in sober jubilation – aware of the sacred journey we commence.

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