In order to celebrate Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for Passover, “many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread palm branches that they had cut from the fields” (Mk 11:8).
There’s a good reason why the people who welcomed Jesus did so using the branches and leaves of the palm tree.
For the ancient Israelites, the palm was associated with Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Festival of Booths. The palm was used in a number of ways during this festival, including as a covering for the temporary structures made for the holy occasion. It also had symbolic meaning, as a way to mark the end of the harvest time and as a way to commemorate God liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
For the people shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mk 11:9-10) to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, welcoming him with palms was an acknowledgment that his ministry was a continuation of the liberation God began in Egypt (the Hebrew origins of the word “hosanna” means “save [us], we pray”).
For the Israelites, the palm was a symbol that they could use to remember their history, pass down their traditional values, and celebrate their community. All of this cultural and personal meaning is bound up in a simple plant.
This small example reminds us that our very creativity as a species is enhanced through our relationship with nature. Many of the cultural products that we hold dearest happen in collaboration with nature: visual arts, fashion, architecture, and especially cooking (among others).
Our relationship with God is also enhanced through our relationship with nature. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us that “the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves” (LS no. 84).
But in our age of ecological crisis, the species we collaborate with are going extinct and the landscapes we treasure are going barren.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that between 0.001 to 0.1% of all species become extinct each year. If the lower estimate is true, then between 200 and 2,000 species of plants and animals are going extinct every year. If the higher estimate is true, then it's between 10,000 and 100,000 species.
In addition to species, in 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimated that in the previous 60 years, 60% of the Earth’s lands and waters had been degraded.
Pope Francis says it best: “because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right (LS no 33).” This vast ecological destruction stunts our creativity, erodes our ability to make morally just choices, and diminishes our relationship with God.
But the example of the people on the first Palm Sunday points us in a different direction. It illustrates that humans and nature thrive together, that we are both traveling toward the Kingdom of God on the same road.
We can begin to repair our relationship with our earth family by exploring the deeper, symbolic meanings in their existence (for example, learning more about the chemistry, biology, and habits of a flower native to where you live). We could also reengage with the ancestral practices we’ve abandoned or look more closely at the ancestral practices we’ve kept but perform rotely (for example, reflecting on the symbolic and social meanings of water in the sacrament of baptism). Finally, we can engage in mutually enriching forms of creativity with nature, cultivating a symbiotic instead of parasitic relationship (for example, learning how to garden or landscaping our lawns in an ecologically sensitive way).
Copyright © 2021 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.