Sunday, April 1, 2007

Palm Sunday in Lebanon

Today, we celebrated Palm Sunday, or Shaa’nini in Arabic. This is always an important event which is especially geared towards the little kids. Before the sermon started, the priest announced that he will keep it short and sure enough, his sermon took only 10 minutes or so. After the Holy Communion, the fun part started, namely a procession around the church, whereby the kids are carried by their fathers. Highly exciting for the kids, less so for the fathers because it’s not easy to carry 15+ kg on your neck for half an hour or so:-) The kids are dressed to the nines for this occasion, with the girls in lovely dresses and the boys in little suits.

The priest and his helpers would lead the procession and the rest of the church goers would walk behind him. The weather, however, was dreadful since it rained when we arrived to church. Too bad, because they might cancel the outside procession and replace it with a somewhat cramped tour within the church, which is not the real thing of course.

We quickly exited the car and went into church. Because of Brigitte’s pregnancy, we didn’t want to risk of being late and thus not having a seat, so we went early. In Holland, being early for church on such occasions would mean you have to show up at least 45 minutes early to guarantee a seat. The Lebanese are less punctual: we were 10 minutes early and the church was still half empty.

It is always amazing to see the lack of planning in Lebanon, which is a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. Making reservations at restaurants, e.g., is dead simple: just call the restaurant in the afternoon to make reservations for that same night and most likely there are still tables available. Try that in Europe or America: most good restaurants are solidly booked weeks, or even months ahead of time. It’s great to have this easy access to any restaurant in Lebanon.

The downside is that people usually show up late, regardless the occasion. During the first 15 minutes in a movie theater, you have a constant flow of people arriving late. A famous example of being late was three years ago when a classical concert in Byblos was held up for more than 2 hours because the president didn’t arrive in time. Too bad for the musicians who had to wait in their tuxedos and evening gowns in temperatures still reaching above 30 degrees Celsius in the sweltering night.

In short, many people here show up late, even for church. Keeping God waiting is not a concept I was brought up with, but the average Lebanese is quite a bit more flexible. As a result, churches quite often start filling up after the service begins. Perhaps this is a symptom for Maronite / Catholic churches only, whereby the Holy Communion is considered to be the most important part. It’s not uncommon to see people pop in for the host (piece of holy bread) and then leave again.

All the while in church, we were concerned about the weather: would it be possible to have the procession outside? Yesterday, the weather girl was not very sure because the computer predicted rain, and she solemnly added that only God could make a difference.

Sure enough, when we left the church, the sky had cleared up and the sun was shining plentiful. It was actually quite warm. Last year, it was the same thing: we also went in the rain to church, only to find abundant sunshine when we left again to start the procession. And some people say that miracles no longer exist…

So there we all went with our kids on our necks, out into the sunshine. Each kid took an olive branch from baskets at the exit of the church and off we went. The fact that they use olive branches is quite fascinating, since the day is called Palm Sunday. So why not use leaves from the palm tree? I never bothered with this little detail in Holland since we don't have palm trees or olive trees over there. But in Lebanon we have both, so how come?

A quick Bible study reveals that the gospels are inconsistent on this topic. Palm Sunday is in memory of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He was either riding a donkey or a colt and the crowd received him with by placing their coats and leaves on the road. Just like Jesus’ mode of transport, the Bible is unclear as to what leaves were used.

In some places, the Bible mentions people took leaves from trees along the road. This must be a reference to olive branches, which leaves you can easily remove and which can be found along the road used by Jesus: the procession took place next to the Mount of Olives in greater Jerusalem, a good hint that the people must have been using olive branches.

However, the gospel of John speaks clearly of palm leaves, which the people took off the trees…So which gospel to believe? Given the fact that the gospel of John was written much later than the other three and given the practical obstacle to remove palm leaves which are quite sturdily connected, it is most likely that John has changed the leaves from olive branches into palm leaves. Perhaps John thought it would be more fitting for King Jesus to be welcomed by large palm leaves instead of little olive branches?

Whatever the historical truth, the churches in Lebanon believe that olive branches are the most appropriate and thus use them, possibly fueled by the lack of palm trees. Olive branches have the added value of being seen as a symbol for peace. After the procession was over, we chatted a bit with friends, gave our regards to the priest and went home for a quick stop, only to continue to friends of us who invited us for Sunday lunch. The food was great, abundant and it was no surprise that the lunch lasted until 6PM. These afternoons, shared with friends, make you realize the beauty of Lebanon and its people.