Lately I’ve been thinking about the life cycle of a palm branch.
Just under a year ago, I purchased hundreds of palm branches from a florist down the street, and spent the afternoon trimming them down so that the following Sunday – Palm Sunday – my congregation could wave them around and mark the beginning of Holy Week in style. These leaves were vibrant and fresh, recently plucked from a tree in some perpetually lush part of the world.
The leftover branches ended up on the floor of my office next to my desk. They sat there unnoticed for the better part of a year. And they died: they gradually lost their color and their moisture, turning into crunchy, pasty-yellow things.
Last week, I snapped them into pieces, threw them into a basin, and tossed a match in. They were quick to catch, and the flames – coupled with dense, white smoke – were surprisingly lively. It died down as fast as it started, and all that was left were ashes.
It’s a somber life cycle if you think about it: vibrance and celebration, gradual decline, and brief, fiery destruction.
What I’m looking forward to today – Ash Wednesday – is to see those palm branches in their final act, when the ashes are used to visibly mark hundreds of people, united in sin and redemption.
Another thing I’m looking forward to is returning to that flower shop in a few weeks to buy more palm branches, thus re-starting this tragic and beautiful life cycle.
Palms and ashes and palms again are little but robust symbols of the seasonal cycle that the church holds dear. Fast – feast – fast – feast. Repentance – grace – repentance – grace. Over and over again ad infinitum, because the story that we are a part of does not end in fiery destruction. It does not end at all.
There’s beauty in the monotony, knowing that each year we come to Ash Wednesday and Lent a little different than the year before. Maybe a little wiser, or more tattered, or braver, or more distant. But we always come back with the same need for grace that we’ve always had (whether we’ve known it or not) and put in our place:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
By the way, this Lent I’ll be working my way through the Lent Prayerbook put together by the good folks at Liberti Church and Restoration Living. It’s a wonderful (and free!) resource, and it can be all yours by just clicking here.