Why the palm?

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” –John 12:13

Dear members and friends of the Swedenborgian Church,

As its name signals, Palm Sunday is often celebrated with Palm branches. When I was young, I was taught at Sunday school in Korea that palm branches are not optional, but mandatory items to celebrate Palm Sunday. I even remember having some serious conversation on the meaning of palm branches with friends after the Sunday school. But the significance of the palm was at best very vague and unclear to a boy living in South Korea who had never seen a live palm tree. However, if you actually check out the Four Gospels, it is only John who speaks about the actual palm branches, while the other three Gospels describe them as “branches from the trees (Matthew 21),” and “branches they had cut in the fields (Mark 11),” and Luke does not even mention branches of any kind. What we can learn from this are two things: 1. Perhaps what we now believe to be a definitive characteristic of a ritual may have resulted from emphasis after-the-fact; 2. There is something special about trees and their branches in the Bible as trees are often used to symbolize humans.

There is only one Gospel that actually mentions palm branches. Thus, if we put together Matthew, Mark, and John, the actual emphasis is probably about branches of trees, or more specifically leafy branches of trees. According to Leviticus, there was an actual festival ordered by Moses in the 7th month (Tishrei), which was called the Festival of Tabernacle. In this festival, the people were instructed thusly: “On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows, and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days (Leviticus 23:40).” Also, in Genesis, Adam and Eve covered themselves with tree leaves after they had eaten the forbidden fruit.

The leafy branches of a tree usually mean that the tree is very healthy and expected to give a good yield of its fruit. According to Swedenborg, tree leaves symbolize truth which is important because when understood and accepted, truth becomes a seed in our mind. In time, the seed grows to become a tree that will bear many fruits, which symbolize goodness. However, truth always has two sides: one, how something is objectively, the other how it is perceived by a person. Ideally, we hope they are the same. But in reality, they are are often quite different. Long ago, the people greeted Jesus as their king holding branches of trees in their hands shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” Yet in reality, they did not know the true meaning of what they were shouting for, and what kind of king Jesus was. The people greeted Jesus in terms of the truth that they hoped to see in him, while Jesus came to them to reveal a bigger and a more spiritual truth. Holding leafy branches, according to Swedenborg, symbolizes giving power to truth, meaning living the truth that you have accepted. Thus, the message of Palm Sunday is that we greet and welcome Jesus with acts of goodness!

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee