It was Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday after Epiphany and before the beginning of Lent. I had just been ordained as a deacon, and we were planning to have a burning of palms on Shrove Tuesday (just two days away) but I didn’t have any palms yet.
There is no shortage of palm trees in California so I figured I’d find a palm branch somewhere, but I had no idea where. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in close proximity to a palm tree, but they don’t drop branches very often. Usually they just drop little feathers of leaves. I was going to have to do a lot of gathering to make enough for our palm burning.
Anyway, it was Transfiguration Sunday and it was a bit chilly because the wind had been blowing like crazy all weekend. After church, I had gone out for lunch with my wife Miranda and our friend Hans, who was driving us back to our cars. And I spotted a pile of palm branches on the road, so immediately I exclaimed, “Hans! Pull over right here!”
I jumped out of the car, still wearing my clericals, and ran back down the road, back to where the palm branches were. I grabbed the biggest one and put it in the back of Hans’s car, and two days later after our Shrove Tuesday pancake supper, I burned those palm leaves to make our ashes for Ash Wednesday.
Now, it’s an amusing story, and certainly an unusual image–a deacon running down the street to collect dead palms for the sake of a liturgy–but it’s actually settled deeply into my soul. In the Christian tradition, we talk a lot about the Holy Spirit moving like a wind (Genesis 1:2, Psalm 104:4, John 3:8, Acts 2:2).
The Hebrew word ruach (roo-akh) is literally a breath but is used dozens of times to refer to God’s Spirit. So too, the Greek word pneuma (noo-ma) is literally a breath, the kind of breath you would blow to raise a fire, and it is used frequently to describe the unseen force that dwells within people giving them life, and to describe the Spirit. The Latin word spiritus refers to breath as well, and this word gives us words like inspiration (to be filled with a spirit) or aspiration (to be unable to breathe).
The movement of air is strongly connected to the activity of God.
And the movement of air carried a palm branch down onto my path.
I could go on and on about the way our religious tradition uses the concept of the path to describe spirituality but I commend you to search it out for yourself… the Abrahamic journey, light on the path, the path of the righteous, the narrow path, the way of Jesus, the road to Emmaus…
More so, God has created the earth as a garden for humankind to cherish and through which to know the Creator. The purpose of the ashes on Ash Wednesday is to remind us of our place in the order of the world God has made, to remember that we come from the dust of the earth and to the dust we will return. This knowledge is not meant to frighten us, but to make us more mindful, and to drive us toward penitence.
Now, penitence is not punishment. That’s not what it means. Penitence means amending those parts of your life that are not in harmony with God. It means pruning behaviors that are destructive to yourself or to the world around you. It means becoming a better member of creation.
And so, as I was seeking palms to use in pursuit of penitent mindfulness, the earth herself provided. That beautiful palm tree offered her own branch.
And so, I give thanks to God and I bless the palm tree.