Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spiritual meanings derived from Palm and Olive Branches

Spiritual meanings derived from Palm and Olive Branches
Pope Shenouda III
Translated by Dr. Wedad Abbas

Would that we live the power of the Resurrection; the Resurrection which changed the disciples, which made of the empty tomb a symbol of continual victory, and which was the starting point of power in the life of the Church!
Happy Easter!

Palm Sunday is a Feast of the Lord, in which we remember how the people received the Lord with palm and olive branches.

Palm branches:
1. The leafy branches are the heart of the palm tree, which we liken to the heart of the Christians. This heart we offer to God, for He says, "My son, give me your heart."(Prov 23: 26)
2. The palm tree branches also are fresh and white, two qualities required in the pure heart which has been renewed and reborn in baptism. The heart of the palm tree undoubtedly represents this new birth.
3. The heart of the palm tree is soft, submitting to the person who makes of it various shapes. This gives us an idea about the life of submission to God in complete obedience, like a piece of clay in the hand of the potter (Rom 9: 21). Therefore we offer to God the heart of the palm tree in a beautiful shape, in the form of a cross, a host or a heart. Each of these shapes has its significance.
4. The palm branches remind us that the righteous are likened to a palm tree, as the Psalmist says, "The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree." (Ps 92: 12) The similarity is perhaps in that the righteous like the palm tree is high and directed unto heaven. The palm tree is continually growing and extending high, while its roots extend deep and strongly that it may be able to bear all that height. It gives us a lesson in spiritual growth.
5. The palm tree is firm and fixed. However violent the wind may be, it may only shake but never falls although it seems slim and weak!
6. The palm true represents asceticism, forbearance, self sufficiency with the least. It can grow in the desert and endure heat and thirst, even for a long time without being watered. It is therefore one of the famous and strongest desert plants. It is the food of the hermits in the desert. It reminds us of Abba Nopher the anchorite who was nourished with the dates of the palm tree, and also of St. Paul (Abba Pola) the first anchorite whose attire was of the palm leaves or fibers.
7. The palm tree is fruitful and nurturing. Its dates give high energy, containing varied food stuff. Also it can be kept for a long time without being spoilt. The righteous person likewise provides spiritual food to the others.
8. The palm tree is of many benefits to the people. Its dates are good food, and its leaves are useful for making baskets. Of its fibres robes are made, and of its bare branches roofs of the village houses. Its rind is useful as fuel, and its stem for ceilings and fuel. Palm trees were even made hollow and used for burial in some ages. For all these benefits we can say that the righteous does not only flourish like a palm tree, but is also of benefit from all aspects.

Olive Branches:
The people received the Lord Christ with the leafy branches of the palm trees and the olive branches. What do these symbolize?
1. The olive branches have become a symbol of peace since the dove brought a freshly plucked olive leaf to our father Noah (Gen 8: 11), declaring to him that the flood had ended and the earth had become again fit for living. This reminds us that the Lord Christ made peace between heaven and earth, and between the Jews and the nations. He broke down the middle wall of separation.
2. The olive branches remind us of the olive oil, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. They remind us of the holy ointment (1Jn 2: 20, 27; Ex 30: 24- 25) with which the kings, the priests and the prophets of the Old Testament were anointed. Do you likewise have peace with the Lord Christ when you receive Him on Palm Sunday? Do you remember the ointment with which you were anointed when God's Spirit descended on you?
3. The olive branches remind us of the words of the Psalm: "… your children like olive plants all around your table." (Ps 128) The olive branches bear oil which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit inside them, and moreover bear the olive fruit. Do you also keep the Holy Spirit inside you? And when you hold up the olive branches on Palm Sunday, do you remember that your children are like an olive plant that you have to offer to God with the oil of joy and the Holy Spirit with which they have been anointed on their baptism and became a dwelling place for the Spirit?
4. The olive oil reminds us of the words of the Psalmist that he is a green olive tree in the Lord's house, an olive fruit bearing oil, that is, the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Church is likened to an olive plant because she bears the holy oil to the people. The Book of Zechariah the Prophet speaks about the two olive trees at the right of the lampstand who the angel called "the two anointed ones" (Zech 4: 11, 14). These represent the Church of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament. St. Paul the Apostle refers to them in (Rom 11: 17- 24) as the original olive tree representing the Church of the Old Testament, in which the wild olive tree representing the Church of the nations has been grafted. So when we hold up the olive branches on Palm Sunday, do we really mean to offer the church to the Lord?
5. Do we remember the lamps that were lighted everyday with the olive oil in the Tent of Meeting and in the Temple? Do we remember that we are the light of the world and give light by the oil that is in us? We hold up the palm branch which is the heart of the palm tree and with it the olive branch which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, do we then connect between both matters: the heart and the Holy Spirit working in it?
The public burial prayers:
The Church prays these prayers at the end of the Palm Sunday Mass for the spirits of those who depart from this world during the Passion Week. During these prayers, do you remember death and get prepared for it, saying, "My heart is ready, O Lord." Or say with the Psalmist, "Every man at his best state is but vapor … every man walks about like a shadow … Lord, make me to know my end, and what the measure of my days is that I may know how frail I am." (Ps 39: 4-6)
Questions & Answers:
Many questions are addressed to us that may be briefed in two:
a. Did Christ descend from the tomb into the lower parts of the earth?
b. Did He descend there by both His spirit and His body?
The answer:
According to the teaching of the Holy Gospel, the Church and the Fathers, the Lord Christ descended by His human spirit only into the lower parts of the earth and announced the good tidings to the dead who lay in hope. He announced to them that salvation has been accomplished and that he has paid the wages of sin on their behalf. And having redeemed them, He then transferred them to Paradise.
This took place on the same day of crucifixion, for He said to the thief on His right, "Today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Lk 23: 43) He opened the door of Paradise on that day, entered accompanying with Him the thief on His right and all the righteous of the Old Testament who lay in hope.
On that same day as the Holy Scriptures teaches us, the body of the Lord was lying in the tomb, which means that He announced those in the lower parts of the earth by His spirit only. On the cross the Lord committed His human spirit in the hands of the Father at the ninth hour of Friday (Lk 23: 44, 46). His body remained on the cross until Joseph of Arimathea took it by permission of Pilate and prepared it for burial. So the body was taken down from the cross at the eleventh hour and was prepared for burial.
The preparation of the body for burial took much time till sunset and the Jews' Preparation Day which was nearby. Joseph came followed by Nicodemus who also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. They took the body and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews was to bury (Jn 19: 39, 40; Lk 23: 54). Then they rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and the chief priests made the tomb secure, sealed the stone and set the guard.
When then did the body come out of the tomb? It only came out in the Resurrection early Sunday.
It is impossible to say that Christ descended by His body and spirit, because the body was in the tomb at that time and He transferred their spirits to Paradise as He had promised the thief. If the body had descended to announce the dead that would have been after the burial in the tomb, which is impossible for many reasons:
Is it reasonable that a dead body announces to them the good tidings? And if the body was united with the spirit, this means that the Resurrection had taken place, which is against the teaching of the Scripture and the Creed. For we say, "… and on the third day He arose according to the Scriptures." And the Lord said the same to His disciples that He was to be killed and be raised the third day (Mt 16: 21; Lk 9: 22). Furthermore if we say that the body had descended into the lower parts of the earth, this means that He was not like Jonah the Prophet who stayed in the belly of the fish for three days. The Lord mentioned this similarity when the Jews asked Him a sign, saying, "A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah." (Mt 16: 4) We remember this in Jonah's Zoxology.
Certainly then He did not descend by a dead body, nor the body did unite with the spirit before the third day, nor did He come out of the tomb before the fixed time. And if He had announced the dead with His body, was it in the burial cloth? Is it reasonable to do that in the burial cloth and the spices? Is it reasonable that He transfers the dead to Paradise while He Himself is in burial cloth? Or did He come out of them? And if so, did He enter into them once more and come out of them on the day of the Resurrection? Where is death then if the body moves like that, coming out of the tomb and returning to it?! And was the tomb empty during that? And when He took the souls to Paradise, did He take them by His dead body in the burial cloth?
I want those who addressed such questions to hold to the teaching of the Holy Scripture, to the Church Traditions, and to the Creed: that the Lord was buried and arose from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures. He descended into the lower parts of the earth only by His human spirit, and by His spirit He announced to them the good tidings and accompanied them into Paradise. All that time the body lay dead in the tomb and came out only in the Resurrection. None of the Fathers; neither the Holy Scripture nor the Church Books nor the Traditions say anything different.
"He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Mt 13: 43)

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III Patriarch 117th of the See of Alexandria and Successor of St. Mark. Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of Saint Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. He is the head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.

WATANI International - 19 April 2009 - 11 Baramouda 1725 (Coptic Calendar) - Year 9 - Issue 427.
WATANI - 19 April 2009 - 11 Baramouda 1725 (Coptic Calendar) - 1st Issue Year 51 - No. 2469 - 2nd Issue Year 9 No. 435


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