Tamara, my given name, means "palm branch." At key moments in my life, like my wedding and every year on Palm Sunday, my preacher Dad would bless me with the retelling of its meaning.
Tamara, you are our palm branch raised to Jesus.
It's a beautiful image - one that's never worn out for me. Not too many years ago, though, it occurred to me during my meditation, if I am a palm branch raised, then I am also a palm branch crushed. Once verdant branches that were left behind to be crushed under the feet of a hopeful crowd and animal hooves returned to arid desert soil and become dust again.
Fittingly, for centuries the Church has ground up the branches waved in worship on Palm Sunday, lived the cycle of life and light again, and then used the ash to mark the foreheads with the charry cross on Ash Wednesday the following year.
I am a palm branch raised to Jesus, and then crushed under the weight of the King of Glory, repurposed to give and receive love and healing in a broken world. Much of my life I have resisted the crush and the weight of Christ's path. I have wanted to wave a Hosanna or nothing at all.
A couple of years ago, on Palm Sunday, I spent the early morning looking at the image below made by Giotto in the thirteenth century. I noticed the contrasts of facial expressions: the crowd, the colt, the disciples behind, and then, Christ himself. After looking, I realized how much I am to blame for hating the Christ who rode the donkey, and how much I've been offended by his humility to move toward the people He knew would betray Him. I could not deny my own guilt of standing in judgement of His mercy-giving heart.
Later that morning, as I walked from my car into our sanctuary I wished I hadn't spent time with Giotto's image. On that walk up two city blocks in Austin, I normally took pleasure in the choir of mourning doves in the trees that lined the sidewalk. That morning I found myself wishing they'd tone it down a notch.
I was angry. Angry that I felt so sad instead of joyful. Angry because I wanted to join in the Hosannas and palm-waving with joy, but I'd spent time meditating Giotto's rendering, and all I could see was the difference in the expression on the disciples' faces and the expression on Jesus'.
Angry because I knew the artist was right, and I was caught in my transgressions.
See that gaggle of halos behind the donkey's backside? See the wary faces, the fearful faces, the you-can't-fool-me-I-know-you're-up-to-no-good faces? That's me. Or I should say, that's my learned response, the sinful response of my false self to suffering and pain and abuse and betrayal. The disciples had just spent the week trying to figure out Jesus' dire warnings about His upcoming death and, in Giotto's mind anyway, they were on guard. They could not take pleasure in the Psalm-shouting crowds.
Living like Jesus would mean my face would change from guarded distance to a merciful moving-toward. Knowing that it was His Father alone He could truly trust, Jesus rode upright and clear-eyed into the very hands that would betray Him.
I do not like this truth. My wounded, sinful self flails against it. I want to save my Psalm-shouting for the triumphant, steed-riding Jesus. I want to be the waving palm, verdant and lush; I don't want to be the crushed, trampled palm. I want to be the Living Palm, not the Dying Palm.
Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna, Jesus, turn my face toward Yours. Hosanna, Jesus, turn my face toward those You love, including my own sad heart. Hosanna, Jesus, save me now.
It's the Gospel truth that we serve a Christ who knows personally and humanly every way we have suffered and been tempted. Alternately, this year as I contemplate again the images of palm branches and medieval artwork, I've begun to imagine what Christ may be feeling underneath his fixed gaze.
A few mornings before Palm Sunday last year, I woke up thinking about this image of Christ entering the cheering crowds. I jotted down the thoughts before I forgot them: If you've ever returned home after a long time gone, to people who might no longer recognize the real you, maybe it felt a bit like that. If you've ever felt you were loved only on the condition you met everyone else's expectations and ideals for you, maybe it felt a little bit like that. If you've ever felt completely alone in the middle of a cheery crowd, it might be a bit of what Christ experienced on his ride into town.
If I've ever thought loving these people might just be the death of me, well maybe it felt a bit like that. If I've ever chosen to forgive the same ones I knew full well would need forgiveness again and would never know the cost of the forgiveness and never be able to fully restore to me what they stole, then I might be able to identify with the look in Christ's eyes headed into that heartbreaking city. And I might be able to echo his prayer a few days later when this same crowd called for his crucifixion: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
Today we remember the Christ who returned for His people. In our relentless pursuit of optimism, we've come to call this procession the Triumphal Entry, when in reality our King showed up for his everlasting coup on the back of a baby donkey.
And so we enter Holy Week again. Thank you, friends, for walking with me here on the blog these past five weeks. For forty days each year, I wage a battle against my own willful distraction to sin and suffering, hoping I'll be ready to worship in spirit and truth the Christ who returned for His people. My intentions at fasting and prayer are, at best, half-hearted and my follow-through, often pitiful. This is the entry I make into Holy Week, but in the strength of the Humble King I hope it will be enough to prepare me to enter with Him. As on every other day, I live with the hope that He will fill in the gap between my intention and execution with the cross He is about to carry.
To help me make it the final stretch of Lent, each year during Holy Week I invite several friends to share their own experience of suffering so that we may look together for Christ in the midst. Their lives walk the path between celebration and suffering -- illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, death of loved ones, death of dearly-held dreams. Their stories have helped form me in my understanding of suffering and I believe they could also encourage you too.
Somewhere along the decade of my thirties I realized I needed a sturdier foundation for all the grief I saw in my own life and in the lives of people around me. I began to rely on others who could sit with me in my grief rather than try to persuade me out of it. This became the sort of value that defined my relationships -- those who welcomed me into their own suffering and shared mine became my dearest friends.
A few years ago during Lent as I researched mourning practices around the world for my submission to Christ Church's Lenten devotional, I stumbled on the words of Ranier Maria Rilke in his Requiem for a Friend:
"Once, ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night, when all is silent. Where can we find such customs now? So many have long since disappeared or been disowned. /
That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve the lament that we omitted."
This phrase "retrieve lament" added to my understanding that part of Christ's ministry to us through His life, His Spirit and His people is to "retrieve the lament that we omitted".
Toward that end, each day of Holy Week, I'll share one story of lament from a friend's account of suffering as a way to help us walk with Christ toward the cross. Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of Christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories of lament we share here this Holy Week.
Join us, won't you?
You can see posts from previous years at the following links:
Nancy Linenschmidt, Cheryl Sellstrom, Allison Backous Troy, Brian Murphy, Shaun Fox, and from me, the mother.
Kaley Ehret, Shannon Coelho, Haley Ballast, Brian Murphy, Nancy Gilmore Hill, Sharon O'Connor and a summary from me here.