Turning spikes of torment into fronds of welcome

21 March 2017

By Andy Hamilton SJ

Date palm branches are double edged. The fronds are soft and sift the air as they are waved in celebration. They are waved as a symbol of victory for a visiting king. Towards the junction with the trunk, though, the unfurled fronds are sharp, like swords. They can lacerate and are about deterrence. They are a symbol of cruelty.

In the story of Jesus’ last days, both ends of the palm are in play. On Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem in a pantomime of royalty.  Rolling on a donkey, with people waving palm fronds, he is accepted as king for a day.  But later he experiences the palm spikes. He is captured and beaten, has thorn spikes hammered into his head, and is made a bloody symbol of deterrence. The festivity of Palm Sunday is the prelude to the cruelty of the Passion. And the Passion, of course, is itself the prelude to the Resurrection in which the spikes of suffering and rejection expand, soften and flutter green and verdant.

It is appropriate that many Christian celebrations of Palm Sunday include meditations in the light of Jesus’ comic entrance to Jerusalem as king both on the nature of kingship and also on those made victims by the power of the State.  It is a time for remembering the Christians and other persecuted groups in the Middle East and also the people who seek protection from war and persecution and who are treated brutally to deter others.

Marches that take place through Australia in solidarity with people who have claimed our protection and who now languish in cruel detention or have had their lives indefinitely suspended are particularly appropriate on Palm Sunday. Marches re-enact the short, comic journey of the first Palm Sunday, are similarly powerless in the face of power, have the same makeshift, amateur, enthusiastic feel to them, and take place against the same dark public threats to human dignity and to the respect due to each human being. They express the same solidarity with the victims of power that Jesus showed in his life.  They try to turn the sharp spikes with which refugees are tormented into the fronds of welcome.  

CAPSA, the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum, supports the Palm Sunday gatherings and marches in solidarity with people seeking asylum throughout Australia. They offer a rare opportunity for us to identify publicly with Jesus in the crucial events of his life and with people who suffer unjustly at the hands of our own government with public support. It is a privilege on Palm Sunday to go beyond our Catholic communities to share the company of others who are appalled by what is being done in our name.

Such gestures as the Palm Sunday marches for refugees are particularly important in a year when throughout the world the palm trees of celebration seem to be stripped and the spikes of fear, discrimination and exclusion are being sharpened. Jesus suffers with his brothers and sisters.  They invite us to join them in solidarity.