The Palm Trees of the Holy Land
Prayerfully watching the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee through the great arched window in Duc In Altum always fills me with peaceful delight. The growing daylight forms a shining path over the water toward the opposite shore, still dressed in the morning mist. This backdrop accentuates several tall, slim palm trees in the foreground, crowned with green fronds flickering in the morning breeze. I can hear the Lord speaking with the words of the Song of Songs:
My love, my delight!
In stature like the palm tree (Song of Songs 7:7,8)
Many have described palm trees as arrows pointing to the sky. Together with the two soaring palms between the boat chapel and the lake, there are several shorter but majestic date palms. Ancient Middle Eastern cultures have always valued the date palm, or “Tamar”, and equated it with beauty and fecundity, commonly naming girls Tamar. The palm tree’s gifts are abundant: dates are eaten year-round as fresh or dried fruit, and are made into popular date honey and even date beer; from the trunk, ancient cultures extracted a pleasant juice; fronds can be woven into sleeping mats, baskets, brooms, shelter, and even river craft; palm fibers can be braided into ropes…
Here in Magdala, the green date clusters on our palm trees are quickly growing in the warm May weather and will finally be ripe for harvest by our volunteers in late summer. Dates have been cultivated in the Holy Land at least as far back as 6000-4000 BC, and according to botanist Asaph Goor, it was the date palms of the Jordan Valley that were famous for their superior fruit in the great empires of the ancient world, while costal date palms were impressive in their towering grandeur.
It is no wonder that the palm was considered holy in middle eastern cultures, some of whom even identified it with the Tree of Life. Even its botanic name is the genus ‘Phoenix’, pointing to life and eternity in reference to the legendary bird that rises to life from its ashes.
The seventh verse of the Song continues with this declaration of the Lord:
“I will climb the palm tree,” I resolved,
“I will seize its clusters of dates.” (Song of Songs 7:9)
We often turn our eyes upward when praying, looking toward the sky as we address the one who is ‘on high’ and profess that, “for our sake and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” Now, however, he is the one who must ‘climb up’ to us, describing us as a palm tree. He takes the place at our feet as one, “among you who serves you.” (Luke 22:27). He sees us high above him from this spot, like the sensation of someone standing at the base of the soaring palm tree outside the Boat Chapel.
French priest Fr. Arminjon’s commentary on this verse emphasizes the Lord’s determination to fully possess his beloved – he is eager to embrace the Church, his bride… to embrace me, and each one of you. In this resolute pursuit, the Lord is ready to attempt anything to fulfill his desire, expressed so well in a poem by St Teresa of Avila. “From the Cross, the Bride tells the beloved that she is a precious palm tree on which he climbed.” Perhaps, John, the Galilee fisherman turned Evangelist, made the same connection when he heard Jesus declare, “when I am lifted up from the Earth, I shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).
As we come to the end of the Easter season, let us rejoice in the life Christ won for us by climbing the tree of the cross. As German Cistercian mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg describes, the Lord’s nuptial bed was the very hard tree of the Cross, on which he leaped with more joy and ardor than a delighted bridegroom.