Palm Fronds

Palm Fronds April 13, 2017

a palm leaf in black and white, a close up of the main stem with the fronds coming off of it, nearly centered image.My daughter held the palm frond as if she’d never seen such a thing. I gave mine a perfunctory wave. We were both visitors, standing in the foyer of an elementary school turned church. The pastor was a friend, but in the ten minutes before a worship service—especially during Holy Week—I wasn’t going to latch on to her stole and demand hand holding. So we stood away from the growing group of congregants, clutching our fronds.

I turned to trivia.

“You know about Ash Wednesday?” I asked my daughter.

She nodded. “They smudge stuff on your head.”

“Ashes. And they get them by burning the previous year’s palm fronds.”

I smiled, knowing I hadn’t punctured the thirteen-year-old’s ennui, but was still pleased with the information. Her casual, “Oh, neat” emboldened me.

“Do you know about Holy Week?”

She did not, which struck me with a momentary panic. The fronds-to-ashes bit was admittedly an outside pitch. Something I didn’t expect her to know. But this—a fundamental part of the faith—was a watermelon over the plate.

I’d spent her entire childhood, give or take, working in churches. She’d grown up in the arms of the saints of those churches, passed around in a way that I believe will be imprinted on her for the rest of her life. A forgotten embrace that lingers and lingers. Grace, perhaps.

So she should know this. She should know about Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and how Holy Saturday—in her father’s opinion—is tragically overlooked in the mainline church. How Saturday incapacitates me every year, overcome by the imagined fear and despair of the disciples—of every person who reached out, who touched and was touched, by Jesus. How they didn’t know Easter was coming.

I should say: the religious education of my children is something I consider sacred. While many parts of church life—dressing up, most conspicuously—were considered as needed, I wanted them to have good theology. A small picture of the God who calls in the night. Who jumps in front of us at every turn, offering grace—even when we don’t want it to happen. A God who says, “You are mine and you have worth. No matter what.”

But standing in the foyer of that church, an already dying palm frond in my hand, I realized while most kids were sponges, mine must be rocks. Nothing had connected. Of course, the signs had been there. Long car rides where my son would look up from his copy of Percy Jackson and offer up that, maybe, Zeus and Jesus worked together. My daughter’s passionate arguments of how Jesus couldn’t be perfect. Me side-eyeing all of this and shouting things like, “But the hypostatic union!”

I needed to rally.

“So we’ll walk into the sanctuary with these raised,” I said. Again with the frond.

This time, though, I tried to channel the excitement of that first moment people saw Jesus. When they grabbed whatever they could find, which just happened to be palms, and threw them at the feet of Jesus. When they were compelled to yell out Hosanna!

I waved the frond one last time as the pastor joined the group, big smile and arms raised wide as she welcomed us, inviting everyone to live into the dramatic story that is Holy Week.

“We will process around the church singing We Are Marching in the Light of God.”

My daughter and I looked at one another. Genetics, happening in real time.

“It’s going to be fine,” I said as we joined the procession leading out the door, into the new spring air.

But I could see it on her face, the embarrassment. The teenage ability to root out absurdity—both the good and tragic—in all circumstances of life.

As we circled the building, raising the palms in the air and singing, I caught the eye of a woman walking her dog. Suddenly, I felt it too. The foolishness of singing this loudly. Of raising these plants above our heads. For the briefest moment, I considered pulling my daughter out of the line—taking her to the comic shop or maybe for a chai latte, her latest obsession.

Because this is absurd, I couldn’t deny it.

But the absurdity, most days, is what keeps me in the fold. The absurdity of weakness becoming powerful. Of God incarnate, transforming the world in an instant. The words You have heard it said, but I say to you…reframing everything.

I didn’t know how to explain any of this to my daughter who, clearly, was not having the same epiphany. And perhaps “epiphany” isn’t the right word.

My own life of faith has been more slow burn than fantastic flash. It was modeled to me by women and men who refused to kowtow to cheap or easy answers. Who, more importantly, allowed me to be wrong—at times with a bravado so embarrassing, I can barely think about it now. They trusted I would grow into this, that I would not always be so confident in assigning certainty to mystery.

The birds sang out and, now in the fourth verse, the hymn had become a collection of vague humming. As the entrance of the church came into sight, I looked up at the palm and then back to my daughter, reaching out to touch her shoulder. Promising that we would be inside soon enough.

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Bryan Bliss is the author of the novels Meet Me Here, No Parking at the End Times and the forthcoming We’ll Fly Away, all with HarperCollins. He holds graduate degrees from Seattle Pacific University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He lives in Saint Paul, MN with his wife and kids.

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