Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week leading to Easter. It is a grand, serious, and holy drama in our part of the Body of Christ on earth, played out in liturgy, song, and prayer. We tell the story of Jesus the Christ entering Jerusalem to the cry of Hosannas and the strewing of palm branches as he rides on a donkey through the city gates. Our parishes once acted out this holy week with daily liturgies leading to the Triduum, the three days before Easter. Then on Maundy Thursday we celebrated the Last Supper, when Christ gave the Church the gift of himself in the Holy Eucharist. On Good Friday we mourned as Our Lord was crucified on the cross of Golgotha, the “place of the skull.” On Holy Saturday we prepared for Easter and the transformation of the sanctuary from purple shrouds to white lilies on the altar. Easter Eve was often a celebration of the first Easter morning, candles lighting the dark of the nave. Easter Day was resurrection day when children flowered a white wooden cross at the chancel steps.
Today, with Coronavirus restrictions and fewer numbers of the faithful, we enact a more abbreviated Holy Week. Even so, the liturgies are rich and beautiful, poetry distilled through centuries. We are a joyous people, and our liturgies embrace the transformation of mankind from despair to joy, from suffering to saved, from death to life.
I for one am so very grateful I came to the Faith early in my life so that I could experience these yearly festivals, beckoning me along my path to Heaven. It is a rich and colorful weaving of time and eternity, for with each Eucharist, eternity intersects time. Even today, from home, locked down and attending church virtually, I have experienced such grace, grace that demands immense gratitude. For grace abounds where faith, hope, and love intersect.
And so it was with particular joy that I realized my great grandfather Nicholas Nelson was a devout believer. I have inherited a number of anniversary mementos, silver with “N to C” engraved in swirling cursive letters. The most cherished of these mementos, however, is a plaque designed by Nicholas for Christine for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. He writes in careful printing, framed by leafy tendrils on parchment:
“The thoughts that fit a long life of happiness together have been said so well over three thousand years ago, that they are the best suited to convey all the meaning in my heart. And they are here repeated.“ (Here he quotes Proverbs 31)
“Golden indeed have been the years now registered by this Golden Wedding Anniversary, May 10, 1942.”
My grandmother’s notation can be seen at the base the frame, telling us her parents were married 56 years and 5 months and had three children: Helen Christine (my grandmother), her sister Armorel, and her brother Gilbert.
I had wondered about Gilbert who died at age 27 in Denver in 1922. In researching my Norwegian ancestors I learned from a news article that he died from appendicitis. An aunt of mine, today young at ninety-four, supplied another bit of story: Gilbert’s mother Christine was so grief stricken that she left Denver for San Francisco in the next few months. Why SF? It turns out that Nicholas’ brother Harry had a candy company there, just as Nicholas had founded one in Denver. Nicholas joined Christine in the year following and they made their way to Los Angeles.
My heart ached for Christine and Nicholas, losing a son at 27 years of age. Life was often threatened in those days, and perhaps more appreciated than today because of those challenges. Children didn’t always survive infancy. Surgery was dangerous. Infection was common. And yet they valued what was precious, life itself, family bonds that strengthened the trials.
And so I pray on this Palm Sunday 2021 that we do not forget our history, be it family or nation or world, that when the darkness settles upon us, shrouding our past, demonizing faith, scattering families, that we keep the light burning, keep waving our palms before Him as He enters the gates of Jerusalem.
For as we tell this old story of God incarnate two thousand years ago and His great acts of redemption, we remind ourselves and our world that this is an ongoing, present-day story of God incarnate. Each year we process and wave our palms and sing “All glory, laud and honor/ To thee Redeemer, King! /To whom the lips of children/ Made sweet hosannas ring.” (#61) Each year we act out the drama of His crucifixion and resurrection and His offer of salvation from death, His offer of eternal life to each one of us, His beloved children. Death is no more, conquered by the love of God.
In this way, each year we renew our own life in Christ’s life, weaving our story into His and His into ours. Our ancestors understood these magnificent truths of mankind and told the story too.
Just as we do, today, Palm Sunday 2021, as we enter Holy Week.