The crowds cheered. They spread their cloaks on the road. They cut palm branches and placed them in His path as Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. Two thousand years later, many churches celebrate Palm Sunday by distributing palm branches to commemorate that special day.
When I lived in New York, the church I attended observed many significant dates in the liturgical calendar, including Palm Sunday. I looked forward to receiving my strip of palm leaf as a tangible reminder of the coming of Easter each year.
Then we moved to Florida. The church I attend is a contemporary church, and Palm Sunday is not celebrated with the traditional distribution of palm leaves. I was more disappointed than I expected that first Easter season. Friends at church chuckled at the importance I attributed to tree branches. After all, we were in Florida. If I wanted a palm frond, it was easy enough to go into my backyard and cut one myself! In fact, the following year, that’s exactly what they did, bringing it to our Bible study class on Palm Sunday morning.
Was the lack of palm branches in church really that important? I wondered about it as each Easter passed. The absence of the fronds didn’t change what Jesus had done for me two thousand years ago. I began to consider the other traditional activities that I have long associated with church. How much of it is ritual and how much is relationship? When the absence of traditional religious activities impacts my worship, what does that say about my focus?
Is there a place for tradition in our worship services? I believe there is. Traditional activities provide visual reminders of what I believe. They connect me to the heritage of the Church, providing unchanging anchors in a changing world.
But I’m also glad my dependence on traditional ritual has been shaken up enough to prompt me to remember that I don’t worship the ritual. When the activity becomes more important than the object of my worship, I’ve lost my focus…and my way.
Palm Sunday without palm branches? No problem, because Easter Sunday is coming – when we celebrate a tomb without a body!
What place does tradition have in your worship?