As I prepared, I had a vision of us walking along Via Rucellai in the bright sun, our palm fronds waving in an Italian breeze. This will be beautiful, I thought. I remembered Palm Sunday on Times Square, how we blessed all the palms together, the Lutherans, the Catholics and us, how we walked together back down 46th Street, handing out palms to theatregoers, taxi drivers, dog walkers, the owners of bodegas, their puzzlement turning to recognition as they recollected what day it was, and happily accepted them. I remembered the making of palm crosses in other churches, how we folded and tucked hundreds of them. And I thought of our house in America, where the dry yellow whips of last year's palms are threaded through the broken pediment at the top of the little wooden secretary in the living room, as they have been for decades.
So I was surprised to learn that palm branches would not be carried in procession on Palm Sunday. Not in Tuscany, anway. This is olive country, the source of some of the world's best oil (SOME of the best?! certain parishioners snort in my imagination. SOME of the best? Just write THE BEST and leave it at that.) As I said, Tuscany produces the best olive oil in the world. So we use olive branches for Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Olive branches parade very well. The breeze lifts the little oval leaves to reveal their silvery undersides, making the whole branch appear to twinkle in the light, just the way a whole grove of them seems to twinkle when a breeze ripples through it. Out the gate and down the street we went, Stefano in the lead, his tall heavy cross veiled in red with some olive leaves tied to it, two young girls behind him struggling to keep their candles lit, and a double and triple stream of God's beloved people following, their olive branches twinkling in the sun. Across Via Rucellai and up the other way toward the Arno, then across and back in through the other gate to where we would here again the story that brought us to this week.
Could we bring some palms to Bologna when we came, an email earlier in the week had asked. The congregation in Bologna is small, and has no priest of its own. They invite clergy from other churches in Italy to visit, and Palm Sunday was St. James' turn. Of course we can, I had written back, imagining us on the train to Bologna, our discreet sheaf of skinny palm fronds in hand. Instead, Q carried a big black garbage bag bulging with olive branches, twigs poking out of it at all angles.
The same olive procession in Bologna, inside around the church this time, past a blonde Madonna with a halo of electric lights and another Madonna with her chubby baby on her lap, past St. Francis receiving the stigmata, past St. Clare and St. Catherine. To where we would hear the story again.
The parade always comes back to the story. Everyone loves the parade, but it ends in death, every time. The same story of betrayal and fear. Despair fills the heart of the Son of God -- his modern fan base can have a hard time with that idea, wants him to have been confident and serene throughout. But Jesus doesn't sound serene. Determined, yes, but not insulated. The agony of what is happening to him is utterly real. Two thousand years later, it hurts just to hear it.
A terrible earthquake has struck the town of L'Aquila in the province of Abruzzi, some distance southeast of Florence. Fifty are confirmed killed so far, and many thousands are homeless. Hundreds of structures have collapsed. People are standing outside with whatever they could grab from their homes, afraid to go back into them now. The death toll is expected to rise. And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were broken.
I fill a bowl with leftover olive twigs. They are curved, so they won't stand up straight in the bowl, no matter what I do, not even with a good heavy frog in there to hold them in place. They bow their heads, our olive branches from only yesterday. They are suddenly very frail. They can show only the tender silvery undersides of themselves to the world.