In the year 1898, the B.J. Johnson Corporation unveiled its latest product – a light-green, floating bar of soap called Palmolive. By the turn of the century, it was the world’s best-selling bath soap. Made from an alleged mixture of palm, olive, and coconut oils cultivated in southern Spain, it was marketed as the luxurious formula of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. Fun fact: it was manufactured in Milwaukee. So now you know that Milwaukee and ancient Egypt have more in common than love for beer.
The palm and the olive are common sights in the Mediterranean, including in the Holy Land, and both figure into this weekend’s celebration of Palm Sunday. Our Lord begins His final journey into the Holy City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, and crowds of people welcome Him, waving branches that they have cut from palm and olive trees, and scattering them on the ground before Him. For the Jewish people, the joyful waving of palm branches was part of the celebration of Sukkot, a harvest festival during which the people would build simple temporary dwellings reminiscent of the tents (Latin: tabernaculum) that their ancestors lived in while wandering in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. It was a feast of thanksgiving, a time of gratitude to the Lord who provided for their ancestors’ every need in the wilderness. The palm makes us think of an oasis, a place of rest and refreshment, of refuge from the hostile desert lands. Bishop Erick Varden of Trondheim notes that: “To wave a palm branch is to celebrate homecoming, to savor release from bondage. When, on Palm Sunday, the crowds spontaneously reenact this ritual, we learn much about their inmost aspirations. They see Jesus as their champion and guide. They pin their hope on him. So do we.”
The olive was also immensely important for the Jewish people. Its fruit served as food, its oil as fuel for their lamps. While they lived in the desert, the Israelites constructed a tent in which they placed the Ark of the Covenant, and which served as the dwelling place of the Lord in their midst. Near this tent, they placed an olive oil lamp that indicated to the people that the Lord was present there. This is where Catholics derive the custom of perpetually burning a tabernacle lamp in our churches that reminds us of the presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. To obtain the light-giving oil, it is necessary that the olives be crushed and pressed. Bishop Varden tells us that on Palm Sunday, “we accompany Jesus, the Light of the world, about to be crushed so that his radiance, eclipsed for an instant on Good Friday, may shine forever. With olive branches in our hands, we acclaim him. At the same time, we prophesy what he must undergo. And we profess our readiness to follow him.”
As we enter these most sacred days of the year, bearing branches in our hands, may we have grateful hearts that seek to live in the light of Christ, who frees us from bondage to sin and offers Himself as an oasis of life and refuge from death.