A Meditation on the Occasion of Palm Sunday
5 April 2009
A Naturalistic Sermon
The Stories that We Tell
Today is Palm Sunday. What does Palm Sunday mean, or what ought Palm Sunday to mean, from a naturalistic perspective? Perhaps even to ask the question sounds odd. Let me try to explain.
Recently when I was working on Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia and Fear of the Future in which I discussed several science fiction films and television series, I found that I was asking myself, “Why are these stories meaningful for us?” and “What do these stories mean to us?” The answer to the question is not immediately apparent. Clearly, the stories are told, and clearly also they resonate with the public; their popularity tells us this much.
There is a sense in which the effort to elaborately place a story in a context utterly distinct from the world that we know alienates us from the story. But the same could be said for the world of fairy tales, in which animals talk and men are transformed into stone, and the like. And yet we understand immediately the relation of the world of the fairy tale to the world in which we actually live.
Similar considerations apply with stories from the distant past, and Bible stories that have become institutionalized as holidays are stories from the distant past that are, in some respects, so different from the world we know today that their relevance is open to question. On the other hand, we again immediately recognize our world and ourselves in the world of the past. Because we recognize our world in the world of the past, we can, at least to some degree, identify with the past, and because we can identify with the past it becomes meaningful for us.
The Meanings of Palm Sunday
A story such as that told of Palm Sunday has many layers, and therefore many meanings. A Google search on “Palm Sunday” returns several obvious resources, including a nice summary on Wikipedia and an entry from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. The latter opens not with the story itself, but by situating the holiday in the context of the ecclesiastical calendar, the Christian liturgical year, as follows: “The sixth and last Sunday of Lent and beginning of Holy Week, a Sunday of the highest rank, not even a commemoration of any kind being permitted in the Mass.” This is a rather formal evocation of Palm Sunday, and notably lacks the human interest of the narrative core of the holiday.
The core of the story from a narrative standpoint is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. A triumph is itself a many-layered and manifoldly meaningful symbol. The Wikipedia article cites Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem, and other sources use this language as well; however, Christ did not enter Jerusalem on the back of a white charger, but rather on the back of a borrowed donkey, and he was honored by readily available palm fronds and not by conspicuous luxuries.
In Roman antiquity, a Triumph was a special procession through Rome awarded to a victorious general, and came, in later Christian usage, to be called a pompa diaboli, that is to say, the devil’s procession. In the eyes of the earliest Christians, the official pomp, splendor, and spectacle of the Roman Empire was diabolical. Thus to call Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a “Triumph” would have been, in Christ’s own day, very much a “loaded” description of the event. Nevertheless, Christ did enter into Jerusalem, and was celebrated and honored by the people of the city; Palm Sunday was a triumph, and it was not a triumph. The symbolism, to borrow the language of Tillich, contains an element of self-negation.
The name of the holiday — Palm Sunday — references not the narrative of the holiday, but its most prominent symbol: the palm frond. In Christianity’s spread to temperate climes, palm fronds became difficult to find, and many different forms of greenery were substituted. If it is to be understood that the essence of the story is retained even while yew, box, and willow were substituted for palms, then, by the same token, we might speculate that the ancient pagan rituals inevitably involving seasonal display of greenery (an ancient custom throughout Europe), also in a sense retain their essence even when the story of Christ is substituted for the pre-Christian stories that were the occasion of spring festivals across the Old World.
A Lesson for Palm Sunday
If the stories that we find meaningful demonstrate for us, with a palpable immediacy, the presentness of the past, and make it possible for us to feel that the men who inhabit these stories and the situations that they faced are, in essence, like our own, one lesson we ought to take from this is the corollary to the presentness of past: the pastness of the present. Now, this is admittedly an awkward term. Probably it would be better to find a more elegant formulation, but for the moment this will do.
If we can feel the relevancy of meaningful events from the past for today, we ought also to be able to, by way of the a priori imagination, feel the relevancy of the meaningful events of the present for the past. History works in one direction, and while the men of the past cannot learn from what we have experienced, but we can learn in both directions — past to present and present to past — an in doing so we can extend our understanding beyond conventional categories.
The exercise of the intellect is the highest calling of man. Today, perhaps contrary to expectation, it is little cultivated. Why contrary to expectation? One might suppose that, given the near universality of literacy and the availability of information resources that there is no excuse not to cultivate the intellect, but what we find instead is the tiresome repetition of the false, the misleading and the conventional.
We can do better than this — much better. And one way that we can do better is to push our a priori imagination to the limits of its possibility in attempting to understand points of view distinct from that egocentric point of view native and natural to each one of us. To this end, thinking through history from both directions, thinking of the present in terms of the past and the past in terms of the present, is one place to start.
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