As a friend and I walked down the hill, the emerald Aegean sparkled in the sun and lapped at the sides of a gleaming white floating city anchored in the harbor at Kusadasi, Turkey.
An army of buses was preparing to ferry several thousand tourists to the storied ruins of Ephesus a few miles north. The worn marble paths lined with gods and goddesses, the tilting remains of the Synagogue where St. Paul had preached and the stadium where Paul’s companions had been rescued by the town clerk from a rioting crowd of silversmiths, were soon to be as overrun as a first century festival to Artemis of the Ephesians.
My friend and I, aligned with a group of more modest scale, had come to Turkey to visit a variety of classical, biblical, and historical sites. As we turned a corner heading for the town center, we suddenly halted.
Ahead us, city workmen were generously trimming the palm trees that lined our path, presenting a dense green carpet of fans and fronds. Shouts of “Hosanna” suddenly echoed in my ears.
A part of me wanted to rush forward to claim this holy ground.
A part of me dared not presume to tread on such a startling reminder of Christ’s triumphal entry.
The situation seemed to call for two steps forward and one back. But soon exaltation overcame hesitation and we moved forward ankle deep in signs of glory and dismay.
How often I had preached the Palm Sunday paradox: joyous “Hosanna” turning all too soon to cries of “Crucify him.” This day, our parade ended not at a cross, but at a sea-side table laden with pistachio baklava and steaming cups of espresso. Admittedly we had leaped rather quickly to Easter joy, but had done so more by serendipity and circumstance than by avoidance or insensitivity.
In retrospect, I realize that both my hesitation and my eagerness to enter upon the palm strewn pathway had been shaped by a rich accumulation of Palm Sunday images, metaphors and experiences that had filled my imagination across the decades.
I think for example of the time following our Palm Sunday worship when a teenage girl took a slender palm frond from my hands and after giving it a few deft twists, turns, and ties, handed it back to me in the shape of a cross.
Or there was the Ash Wednesday service when members of our congregation came forward to receive the sign of the cross smudged in ashes on their foreheads—ashes acquired by burning the previous years’ palms. Suddenly a young mother presented her two-week old baby girl to receive the ashes. I signed a dusty cross on her forehead and choked as I pronounced: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Then, departing from that evening’s liturgy, I found myself adding: “but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.”
I wonder if some of my ambiguous emotions that day in Kusadasi might even be traced to my youthful experience of hearing the obligatory, but to me, interminable solo “The Holy City,” sung each year in our congregation. While I disliked the song, it was counterbalanced by the singer, a beloved man who ran the grain elevator in our little Nebraska town and who on summer afternoons cheerfully weighed us as we rode our bicycles across his great scales.
What a heart-changing, life-giving array of symbols, metaphors and images our scriptures, hymns, and worship give us, continually challenging our fears and evoking our hopes. I think of the words of one of Fred Pratt Green’s hymns: “Here are symbols to remind us of our life-long need of grace.”
One year, at the end of our Maundy Thursday worship, as darkness descended, our pastors, Steve and Sophie, aided and abetted by an Elder, proceeded to strip our sanctuary bare. The congregation sat in brooding silence as physical objects that help to ground us in the mercies of God were carted away.
The great pulpit Bible was the first to go. I thought Sophie staggered a bit under the weight of what she carried or perhaps it was the weight of what she was doing as she came down the pulpit stairs and disappeared out the door. I wondered if Steve and the Elder might hurt themselves as they joined in manhandling the baptismal font to the exits.
The vandals returned to dispense with the communion chalice, and with the plates that hold the broken bread—the very objects used to convey the signs and seals of our faith. The communion table was spared by its sheer bulk, being nearly twenty feet long, but the purple paraments designed to draw us into Lenten reflection were spirited away.
As a congregation, we knew that this exercise in subtraction was symbolic. We knew that what was being enacted was a kind of dramatic fiction. We knew too that on Easter morning all would be well.
But as darkness descended on that first Good Friday, the disciples did not know and dared not believe that all would be well. When Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on Easter morning, she offered a broken-hearted lament: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
By human reckoning, this is finis, kaput, the end.
In God’s reckoning, new life and new beginnings are here: “Christ the Lord is risen.” The universe is tilted in our favor. The old ways of thinking, being, and doing no longer add up. The Old Testament suddenly has a surplus of meaning and a new genre called “gospel” is invented to convey the impossible and proclaim the unimaginable.
The resurrection of our Lord is the lens through which we now view reality; the light that streams from the empty tomb informs our vision. Faithful imagination gathers our knowledge of scripture, the symbols of our faith and the experiences of each new day and sends us on our way in surprised wonder.
Who knows what palm strewn path might lie before us? What angel visitors in disguise might come knocking? What fresh wind might catch our tiniest sail? What scripture passage might read us? What new or familiar experience might become an icon into God’s great heart?
Palm image photo by BLAXTAR ESSENTIALS