Palm Sunday Year C
How did the state of Florida get its name? The name “Florida” is derived from the old Spanish name for Palm Sunday, Pascua Florida. The word “Pascua” refers to the resurrection; “Florida” refers to flowers. You may think it strange that in this phrase, “Pascua Florida”, Palm Sunday appears to described by reference to the resurrection. You may also wonder what the relevance of flowers could be.
This old Spanish title dates from a time when Palm Sunday was a far more splendid and elaborate festival than it generally is now. The first known celebration of Palm Sunday dates from the late fourth century, when a Spanish pilgrim to Jerusalem, an nun called Egeria, wrote in her diary about a procession of Christians walking down the Mount of Olives carrying palm branches, and singing the words with which Jesus was greeted as he entered Jerusalem, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Bishop was riding on a donkey in the procession. Palm branches were an ancient symbol of victory – some of the earliest depictions of the first Christian martyrs show these holding palms, as a symbol of their victory over death.
The custom of the Palm Sunday procession gradually spread, although in those areas where palm branches could not be obtained, other branches were used. In the Eastern church these included olive, elder and lilac. In western Europe, branches of yew or willow tended to be used. Pussy willow was seen as symbolising death and resurrection – the buds representing new life and the branches standing for the wood of the cross. Flowers were often blessed and entwined among the palms or other branches – which is how the Latin name for Palm Sunday, dies floridus, arose – hence the Spanish origins of the name Florida .
But we must not forget the other aspect of that old Spanish name for Palm Sunday, Pascua Florida, which in 1512 gave the state of Florida its name . Why was Palm Sunday seen as a feast of the resurrection? Was it not premature to be celebrating Easter a week early? In the Middle Ages all major festivals were seen as being, to some degree, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. With Palm Sunday, however, this connection was especially strong. This is because the climax of Holy Week, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, was only possible because of his initial decision to enter Jerusalem. He could so easily have decided otherwise. We know, for example, that the disciple Peter did not want him to go through with a decision which would mean certain death. Jesus knew that the religious authorities were becoming increasingly opposed to him, and that they wanted to kill him. So the turning point was Jesus’ decision not to draw back, to retreat to the relative safety of his native Galilee, but to enter into the confrontation which he knew was inevitable.
We can see, then, that once Jesus had made the decision to go ahead with his divine mission – to enter Jerusalem, to be arrested, to suffer and to die – the point of no return had been passed. An inexorable momentum took over; Jesus had to go on. There were some last uncertainties, the final struggle with his destiny, which did not surface until Gethsemane; but by then it was too late. The initial decision had to prevail.
Inevitably, the consequences for the whole world of that decision by Jesus will soon dominate Holy Week. In a week’s time we will be celebrating the resurrection, and Palm Sunday will be forgotten. But the Christians of previous generations, who saw the resurrection implicitly within Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and designed their celebrations of Palm Sunday accordingly, were depicting a spiritual truth which goes far beyond Holy Week. This truth is that for our life as Christians to bear any fruit, the initial decision is all-important. For the fruits of a Christian life rarely come about by accident. If we are content to be carried along by the fashions of contemporary religion, we will not go very far. Jesus, by contrast, was anything but a passive pragmatist who reacted to situations in a way that caused him minimum inconvenience and discomfort. On the contrary: he actively made a decision to confront his opponents, and to maintain the integrity of the divine truth he had come to reveal – even at the cost of his own life.
In the same way, we too need to remember how important it is to make active decisions to follow the ways of God. Comfortable Christian coasting is rarely the route to salvation. We may not have to follow Christ all the way to the cross; but if we decide to follow him in earnest, we cannot expect that the way be smooth. God is always calling us to seek him and serve him: if we keep putting off the decision, before long it will be too late.