Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lenten Mercy-Meditation: Palm Sunday

The sermon at Mass should be short today because the Passion of Jesus is long. And the presence of so many themes tempts the preacher to talk too much. But there is one theme that is largely ignored and that is the meaning of the palm branch itself. We're perhaps used to hearing that palm branches are ancient signs of victory. Branches were waved in front of generals and armies returning from victories. Even successful athletes were surrounded by palm branches. Images of martyrs hold palm branches.

But I'd suggest there is a symbolism that is much closer to each of us personally. It has to do with the nature of religion itself. I suppose there are as many meanings or emphases of religion as there are people. Religion is: dogmas and doctrines, laws, clergy and hierarchies, authority, vows, liturgical worship, morality, sexual ethic, good deeds, institutions. And while I'm in no position to say what other religions are, including all the denominations of a splintered Christianity, it seems to me that Catholicism, with its Gospel, is supposed to be a spiritual way for people. I fear we often lose that awareness and call.

Oaks, Maples, Aspens and Birches lose all their leaves within a few days or weeks each fall. But a palm tree renews itself continuously throughout the year; as it loses a leaf it at once starts to grow another. It is never without its leaves, renewing itself little by little, one leaf at at time. It is a very apt symbol of our personal and steady self-renewal, revival, restoring or freshening. Sad to say, the cultural understanding of personal renewal isn't very deep, often no deeper than our skin and hair: get the right creams, the right body augmentation, the right style, the right look and your good to go. It makes for an empty person.

But if Resurrection only means what happened to Jesus and the promise of life on the other side of the grave, I believe we have sold Jesus short. Personal renewal is the heart of our religion. It isn't just a Lenten thing or an Eastertime thing. Renewal is our way of life. So, can you think of some life-approaches that might effect (palm tree like) personal and on-going renewal? I had a spiritual director who at the end of each session together always prayed over me, that God would grow-me-up. How I valued that prayer! 

Here are some ideas for renewal that come to mind:
  • Read the book I bought and never read.
  • Make the visit I've been procrastinating over.
  • Lose 5 lbs (or more if needed).
  • Go for a walk every day - get sunlight and new air.
  • Clean out a closet, an attic, a basement: St. Basil says, "If you haven't used it in a year it no longer belongs to you, but to the poor."
  • Keep a garden - if even a couple of houseplants well-tended.
  • Give myself ten minutes of hermit time each day - God alone.
  • Learn to say yes if I know how I can be selfish.
  • Learn to say no if I'm wearying out.
  • Quit the cigarettes and give the money to an organization that takes care of the most hungry children.
  • Restore Sunday as an old-fashioned rest day: break the crazy cultural cycle of making money, spending money, noise and haste.
  • Take an evening or summer class (even online) to study something that's always interested you but you never explored.
  • Get free of something that's dumb-ing you down.
  • Read the New Testament from cover to cover over a period of weeks or months.
  • Commit to a charity and keep the commitment.
  • Restore Friday as a day of penance.


  1. A wonderful analogy Father. The palm as a symbol of our continuous personal renewal. I will hold my Palm branches today with a new sense of understanding and self awareness.

  2. Great ideas to start our own transformation. But I have a question about Friday penance. What does that mean?

  3. Until the later 1960's each Friday was a penitential day with Catholics abstaining from meat aware and calling to mind the Lord's expiating death. But the Catholic Church is far and away NOT just the meat-eating First World of the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia - but the rest of the world which doesn't eat meat the way we do - some people almost never have meat in their diets. So Pope Paul VI changed the abstinence laws and gave people the choice of what to do to keep Fridays as days of awareness around Jesus crucified. The penitential character, which in many ways defined us as a faith community (eating meat on Friday was serious stuff!) that penitential character was lost. Some old-timers might still abstain from meat on Fridays. The Fridays of Lent are still supposed to be meatless, but of course, that can be abused. I remember my first Ash Wednesday as a deacon and living in a rather posh rectory. There were 8 clerics at table and the waitress brought in a hugh platter of seaford: clams, shrimp, mussels, lobster tails, scallops. As the pastor dug in he said to the waitress, "This is delicious; make sure we have this again for Good Friday." So you can abstain from meat and still not GET IT. No pun intended but as I often say, "The fish stinks from the head." If the clergy don't "get" the penitential aspects of our lives, we can't expect the people will either.

  4. Our renewal and restoring should be an ongoing part of life. Like prayer, we need to live it, not just go through the motions or say the words.

  5. I see now. I thought you meant that we should go to Penance every Friday and this just didn't seem parallel your other thoughts here. But you are just saying that maybe we should make some sacrificial offering in our lives. I was always under the assumption that no meat on Fridays in Lent was to make us more aware of the season, that we would be preparing in some way. Not that we should have some feast of fish or some other exorbitant meal. My mom always made us eat tuna casserole. My brothers and I surely knew it was Lent. Thank you for your guidance Father, it is greatly appreciated.

  6. Beautiful story about what palms can mean to us. I think we forget that they come from these tropical trees of such beauty when they are handed to us on Palm Sunday. I am making my list of renewal. Thank you for these fresh ideas.

  7. Learn to suffer a little for the love of God without telling anyone. Daily, through this post my faith is increased and an awareness of Christ's mission for the Catholic Church. There will always be doubts but somehow you want to continue on. You are always giving us tools to "Keep the Faith".

  8. Living in faith is like "leaning into the storm." Like the guys on the Weather Channel who go down to the beach in a hurricane and are whipped around, barely able to stand. O Jesus, bring us to Easter!

  9. I love reading your posts Father Stephen! It makes me feel as if you're right here with me, holding me up when I am falling, guiding me to a better life.