Palms, Service, and Sacrifice

Aside from Palm Sunday being the start of the Holy Week, it has also been a day which always brings me back to the concept of a life of service and of sacrifice. The Bible and Roman Catholic dogma has taught me that the palm fronds were used by the some crowds in Jerusalem in their celebration of Jesus’ entry into their city, a celebration which would be short lived since by tradition, Jesus would also die by the week’s end.

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Filipino Catholics hold their palm fronds to receive a blessing from a priest inside a Church on Palm Sunday in Quezon City. (Demotix Images)

For me, palm fronds, like Roman laurels, always represented the temporary acclaim accorded to a person for a particular moment. For the Romans, a crown of laurel was usually given to victorious generals in their triumphal entry into Rome, (supposedly as a protection against evil spirits) and they wore robes with palm designs (palms for them represented victory). While the general was in the parade, a slave would be holding a golden crown above his head while saying “Respice post te! Hominem te memento.” Such was the Empire’s way of reminding their public servants (since most of their generals were also Senators) of the temporal nature of power, influence, and social stature. It was a reminder that everything in life is fleeting.

Althought this was something which I had not exhaustably discussed with any of my teachers back then, even with @jboygonzalessj, I think it is safe to assume that when Jesus went triumphantly into Jerusalem, he knew of the possibility that he would be arrested, charged, and even imrpisoned by the Jewish and Roman authorities. Considering that he had always been a harsh critic of the practices of the Pharisees and has achieved some acclaim as a teacher and leader of men, it can be inferred that the authorities were keeping an eye on him. And being conscious of the socio-political climate of the period, Jesus must have also been aware of how the Roman authorities have dealt with the Zealots and other groups which have been considered to undermine Roman and even Jewish authorities. Still Jesus persisted.

The persistence of Jesus reminds of the actions of some of the heroes in Philippine history. In trying to dissect the significance of Roman Catholicism to the lives of some of the country’s heroes, it can be said that some did live out some portions of their lives either intentionally or not, according to the stories in cathechism which they grew up to. Foremost among those heroes would be the national hero Jose Rizal. Like Jesus, Rizal, after spending years in Europe for studies and propaganda work for greater freedom for Filipinos, decided to go back the Islands in the hope of making significant and lasting contributions to the lives of his people. Of course, after writing two novels which had criticized the Spanish authorities in the Philippines, and several articles exposing their abuses and practices, he must have expected a very vigorous and excited welcoming committee which would accord him the deserved honor. Still Rizal persisted.

And then there was Ninoy Aquino. Like Rizal, he had been a harsh critic of the power which held sway over the Philippines. But unlike Rizal, he would be fighting against a fellow Filipino who deemed himself more powerful than the people and the democratic system which elected him president. He had been a harsh critic of the Marcos administration, especially after the president declared martial law and enacted a news constitution, which was tailor-made to Marcos’ needs. He had been thrown and kept in prison for quite some time until he was allowed to leave the country for health reasons. Despite having barely recovered from his operation in the US, he decided to return to the Philippines. He knew of the risks involved, in fact he travelled under an alias so as to make sure that he arrived without being detected by the authorities. Of course, like Rizal, there was a welcome ceremony waiting for him. Still Ninoy persisted.

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Filipino Catholics hold their palm fronds to receive a blessing from a priest inside a Church on Palm Sunday in Quezon City. (Demotix Images)

I view Palm Sunday not only as the start of the Holy Week but more importantly as a day when we all look into our lives and prepare ourselves for the greatest challenges that we should face. It is a day which reminds me of the willingness of Jesus and those Filipino heroes to confront their fears and persist in the service of others despite the threat of pain or death.

The palm fronds, which are by tradition blessed by the parish priest and displayed by Filipino Catholics in altars or on the doors of their houses are kept for a year until they are offered to be burned on Ash Wednesday – symbolizing how life at first is green, eventually withers to brown, and later consumed by fire leaving only ashes for reminders to the living. And such is also how the life of those who have dedicated themselves to serve others is often lived: a youth of idealism going into an old age of wisdom, eventually consumed by the burning desire to live for others, leaving to the future generations only reminders of a life lived in service.

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