“All the Palms I have laid at Your feet
are now the ashes that cover over me.”
On Palm Sunday, during the first year we worshipped at an Anglican Church, I was given a palm frond woven into a cross. The service had begun with the entire congregation, old and young, in the church hall moving in procession into the sanctuary waving palm leaves (real ones, not the ones made of cardboard tubes and construction paper I’d grown used to in children’s ministry) and singing “Hosanna” and “He is Lord!” in triumphant celebration.
After the service, a sweet little old British woman handed me the palm cross.
“What do I do with this?”, I asked.
“Keep it”, she said, “For next year. Bring it on Ash Wednesday.”.
“Why would I need a palm cross on Ash Wednesday?”, I thought to myself.
I put the palm cross in the visor of my car, and every time I’d flip the visor down, the cross would fall into my lap. Over the course of a year, I watched the cross turn from a lush green to yellow then brown, then grey. By winter it had become a fragile dry husk. A pale shadow of what it had once been.
On Ash Wednesday, as instructed, I brought the palm cross to Church and placed it with those brought by others. These crosses were to become the Ash that was used to mark the foreheads who had gathered to observe the season of repentance and sober reflection that is Lent. The symbolism of this act struck me in a profound way that night.
I have often asked how the people in Jerusalem during Holy Week could have gone from proclaiming “Hosanna” as Jesus rode into town on Palm Sunday to shouting “Crucify Him” a mere 5 days later. But that evening, I realized I am no better, and that reality came home to me in a very real way. The very palm I had waved. The promises of commitment and love and faithfulness I had laid at Christ’s feet less than a year earlier had quite literally become the ashes of my repentance for failing to keep those promises.
Yet in spite of our fickleness, feebleness, and half-heartedness, God offers us His rich mercy. Lent is also a reminder that Jesus came to bear the punishment for our sins and to set us free from their grip. The truth of the Gospel is that we were so lost, so deeply flawed, it took the death of the Son of God to save us. Yet we are so deeply cherished, He laid down His life willingly to be the ransom that sets us free.
“But You have made a way for me
and I will not despair
I will come on bended knee
You will do the rest.”
All that we offer, is all that we need to offer. Our repentance, our contrition, and our thanksgiving. He has done the rest!