April 28, 2013

What Do the Palm Branches Signify?

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

The Evangelist John writes: "The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him." The Evangelists Matthew and Mark describe the scene, saying the people had cut branches from the trees and laid them on the road on which Christ passed through. The word βαΐον (palm) is Egyptian and means the sector cut from a palm tree.

It is evident they greeted Him as a victor, for this is how the people greeted soldiers who returned victorious from war. Christ is the victor over corruption and death which plagued humans above all other problems. Christ is not a teacher, a philosopher, a social reformer, or a moralist, but He is the victor over sin, the devil and death.

Today we also hold palm branches in memory of this event, but also symbolically. We hereby seek to glorify Christ, as the victor over death. The hymns of the Church refer to this fact. In one troparion we sing: "With palms and branches let us greet" Christ who comes to suffer, to be crucified and to be resurrected. In an apolytikion of the feast we chant: "Like the children with the palms of victory, we cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death." The palms are symbols of victory and triumph. In another troparion we chant: "Let us all carry branches of victory."

St. Cyril of Alexandria gives another interpretation, saying that we hold the palms of our souls which is related with the divesting of the death of the old man and the garments of skin and the discarding of disease and sickness. St. Andrew of Crete says that we must offer to Christ, instead of palms, a virtuous life (αντί των βαΐων τον ενάρετον βίον).

Therefore, the palms we bless today and hold in our hands are symbols of the victory of Christ against death, as well as a symbol of our own victory, with the power of Christ, against the passions of the old man, which is our existential death. We tried to spend Great Lent in repentance, prayer and asceticism with divine love and philanthropy. So we desire to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, as well as our own resurrection following the death of our passions. And indeed this is significant, for death is a great contemporary existential and social event, which creates intense existential, ontological and social problems.

Indeed, if one examines many contemporary problems affecting young people, the middle-aged and the elderly, they will find that at their center is death. The irreversibility of death creates terror and fear. Death puts plans to a stop, breaks the society of two loving persons, motivates humans in the accumulation of material goods, and increases melancholy and existential anxiety.

What system can overcome its power? What philosophy and sociology can face it? Who can ease the pain of the man wounded by the approach of death? Only Christ can do this, for He is the triumphant victor over death. This is the deeper meaning of the feasts of Holy Week and Pascha. This is why we hold in our hands today the symbols of victory, having hope and light.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Βαΐα και στεφάνια", April 2007. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.