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WillowHallo again to all.

If you have been around children between about five and ten years of age, you'll have noticed their delight in picking up nearly anything from the ground or growing from it: a lost coin, a cigarette end, a flower, a stone, a stick. If they live in a place where there are trees, you can be sure that the sticks are a favorite. They ask if they can bring them home, they scrape them across the sidewalk, they break them into smaller sticks, and sometimes they fight with them. Children everywhere love pieces of trees.

We suspect this is somewhere behind the four gospel accounts of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what has become known as Palm Sunday. Only St John mentions palms, but the other three mention the fronds carried and waved by the Hebrew children, waving in the streets as adults threw down their coats to welcome the man who in lowly pomp had arrived to die. We followed their lead today, singing All glory laud and honor to its familiar tune in procession before hearing the Passion narrative chanted in parts. From the first moments of the service until its end, there were palms in our hands and at our seats. Palms from where we do not know, but they came home with us and will stay with us as a daily reminder of the beginning of Holy Week.

It has become fashionable among persons who can afford to do so to express concern about the origins of things: whether our coffee and tea have been harvested in ways that are environmentally stable and appropriately beneficial to local workers; whether dairy products come from cows raised and fed humanely; whether paper itself is made from trees in forests managed sustainably. And it is not just origins, but also paths of trade that have come to a correct place our thoughts: is the wild-caught salmon truly better for global ecosystems if it must travel tens of thousands of kilometers from the water to the plate? Even with the best of intentions and information, the topics become impossibly complex very quickly.

We are not the first to bring up this question of origins and trade-routes in connection with the commercially-sourced palms used in today's church celebrations, but we'll share a few facts that have informed our thoughts about them. The first is the most obvious, which is that palms in all of their many species live only in tropical and subtropical climates. If we do not live in one of those climates, then our palms have carbon footprints of a size that would concern us. The second fact is more specific to the North American context in which we worship: most palms used in worship come from Mexico, Guatemala, and Florida. From their places of origin to our churches they must be harvested, packaged, refrigerated, and in many cases shipped using express delivery services. Admitting that we cannot know accurately about labor practices or the environmental responsibility of the firms that send us palms, we have observed each year an extraordinary number of clergy-friends with last-minute palm emergencies about late or damaged arrivals.

Earlier Christian practices around Palm Sunday are a little more congenial to the environmentalists around us, and depend less on global shipping routes: like the Hebrew children of old, European Christians for more than a millennium have simply used what was to hand. In the British Isles, this meant yew, spruce, and boxwood or even evergreen; the holiday was traditionally known as Branch Sunday. It was the use of boughs that mattered, not the tree from which they had been pulled. In Europe eastward from Germany and on to Vladivostok, the holiday is kept with the pussy-willow—a custom continued in the Russian, Lithuanian, Polish and related diasporas as far away as Buffalo and Saskatoon. In the Mediterranean region itself, it is often sprigs of olive that are used rather than palm, the choice being based only on what is local. Palms in the late medieval western Europe that shaped so many of our liturgical practices were so rare that they were sometimes brought back as a singular tribute to a local parish church by a returning crusader.

Should you decide, as some of our friends and colleagues have, to prune the boughs around and near your churches, rather than ordering foreign fronds from far away, we have a hunch that your local trees will thank you. You'll also participate in a rough and ready way in the actions of those first sweet Hosannas from the lips of children: taking what is nearest in creation and turning it to the liturgical work of praise. Tropical palms in Chicago may feel ancient—and are indeed the memory most of us have from twentieth-century worship. But they're really about as old in that hemisphere as Coca-Cola Santa, and he's a topic for another season.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

14 April 2019

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